Friday, March 4, 2011

Merit Pay: The New Euphemism for Downsizing

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
It is no longer just about merit pay. Now the Ed Deformers want merit pay with punishment. If you are deemed a good teacher, (which is to say you work in a middle class school with privileged students who tend to be better prepared and more likely to be at grade level in reading and math), then you would be rewarded with higher pay and larger class sizes, according to a new plan introduced earlier this week by Bill Gates.

Arne Duncan has now jumped on the band wagon, specifically criticizing governors for making “dumb” education cuts, like furloughs and shortened school years, when increased class sizes would save money and possibly even benefit students. He said he would rather have his own kids in a class of 28 with a “good” teacher, than in a class of 23 with a mediocre teacher. Shows how in touch the education secretary is with the reality in California—we typically have class sizes of 32 to 40, with PE and some music and arts classes going even higher. Personally, in 14 years of teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have always had class sizes ranging from 32 to 36, and this is in science classes, with dangerous equipment and chemicals.

Duncan thinks teachers should be paid as much as $20,000 to $25,000 more per year for teaching an additional five to six students per class. Thus, in order to close a class of 30 students, a “good” teacher would have to take on 6 more students in each of his or her five classes. Therefore, firing a “bad” teacher and shunting his or her students to a “good” teacher might save districts $40,000 to $80,000, depending on the fired teacher’s salary. While this can be a huge boon to struggling school districts, it is a terrible disservice to children and it can hardly be called merit pay. In reality, this is just another form of downsizing, squeezing greater productivity from fewer workers, whereas merit pay implies that you are being paid extra for being exceptional at your normal duties. If Gates and Duncan really want to call this scheme merit pay, then they would have to pay these “good” teachers extra for being “good” teachers AND give them an additional bonus for taking on the extra students. Of course this would still be a disservice to students, who would suffer from declining teacher attention, course offerings and safety, and to teachers, who would be rewarded (or not) based primarily on the socioeconomic status of their students.

Teachers should not worry too much about this back door route to phony merit pay. Since the vast majority of “good” teachers will come from middle class schools (these are the ones most likely to have decent test scores), it will be mostly the high performing schools in wealthy communities that get the increased class sizes. This is something that privileged and self-entitled parents will vigorously resist in the courts and at the polls.

While Duncan was busy berating governors for their dumb education policies, he was ignoring the research done by the Institute of Education Sciences, a branch of his own US Department of Education, which shows that class size reduction is one of the very few reforms that have been demonstrated to work. Meanwhile, his buddy Bill Gates has been telling people that 83% of teachers favor taking on more students if they could get a raise. However, according to Leonie Haimson, his data (which is based on survey done by his own foundation) actually showed that teachers preferred a $5,000 raise to a class size reduction of two students. In other words, they did NOT support an increase in class size, they preferred an increase in wages to a tiny class size reduction, two very different things.

Right-Wing Spin: Class Size Just One Way to “Extend Reach” of Best Teachers
It’s not just the lefty ed blogs that are talking about factory-downsizing of schools. David Brooks thinks it’s a wonderful way to “extend the reach” of our best teachers (i.e., get more bang for our buck). EducationNext says, why limit downsizing to bloating class sizes when there are so many other wonderful ways to squeeze more productivity out of our public servants. For example, there is “boundless reach” in which teachers are completely replaced with digital delivery of lessons. There is also “remote reach” in which a live person interacts with students remotely (e.g., taped lectures broadcast to many schools which would pay a subscription fee and/or royalties). Both of these methods are already in place to varying degrees in many districts and colleges.

Ultimately, like other examples of education reform, the goal has nothing to do with improving educational outcomes or making the school experience better for children. Like most other forms of education reform, teachers need to act collectively to resist it. We should be willing to strike to stop NCLB and RTTT and we should be willing to strike to resist this, too. In fact, if we had taken job actions against these abuses of children and our working conditions, the ruling class and their politician allies probably would never have gotten so cocky and gone after collective bargaining and the right to strike. Contrary to the peaceniks, sometimes the best way to deal with a bully is to punch him back.


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  2. Thank you for for this analysis. I especially like the right-wing spin part, which eventually becomes Duncan's policies anyway. Remember when words like choice, competition, and market solutions were confined to the Ayn Rand troglodytes in far right think tanks? Now they're the Obama Administrations' proffered fare.

    We need a return to the educational philosophies of Paulo Freire, Donaldo Macedo, Jonathan Kozol, Alfie Kohn, Henry Giroux, et al if we are to have any hope of salvaging public education from the privatizers.

  3. Thanks, Robert.

    In addition to adopting better educational philosophies, we need to also become more class conscious and adopt more critical and militant attitudes as workers.