Merit Pay Is Unsatisfactory

Merit Pay Is Unsatisfactory

Baltimore City school teachers rally in solidarity with striking Chicago teachers. (Photo by: Bill Bleich, source: City Paper)
Baltimore City school teachers rally in solidarity with striking Chicago teachers.School (Photo by: Bill Bleich, source: City Paper)

Baltimore teachers are in the final year of the “landmark” contract we reluctantly ratified in 2010. Many teachers and education professionals reviled the contract for its attacks on seniority in the form of merit pay. As the BTU and BCPSS move into the contract negotiation season, it is important for the public to understand this concept.

First, the official line from both sides of the negotiations is that the BTU contract does not include merit pay. In our contract, we have opportunities to earn “Achievement Units” (AUs) for a variety of things including but not limited to our yearly evaluations. The powers that be claim that, because these AUs can be earned for taking classes or implementing certain types of initiatives in the classroom, that the pay raises are not based solely on “merit” but also on effort. However, 12 AUs are needed to advance to the next pay level, and an evaluation rating of Proficient earns the teacher or school worker 12 AUs. Therefore, anyone rated below Proficient must do extra work outside of the regular line of duties in order to get a raise year-to-year.

A provision in the contract states that, beginning this year, teachers’ evaluations will be based in part on student achievement and test scores.

Merit pay has become a major part of the education reform (or deform, as the case may be) movement. It’s not new, however; it’s a tool bosses have been using for a long time. The theory behind merit pay is this: market forces don’t have a great deal of pull on low level workers. An entire shop (factory, school, restaurant, etc.) could work extra hard, bring great gains to their employer, and not see any major influence on their paychecks. This means a breakdown in the capitalist idea of market-driven productivity.

The bigger the corporation or bureaucracy, the less direct effect each worker can have on their gains, making for little extrinsic motivation for workers to push themselves. Merit pay brings artificial market forces to the workers. In a factory, this might be measured by number of items produced. For example, workers might get a base pay of $25/hr and an additional $2 every hour in which they produce seven or more windowpanes.

There are problems with this model; for example, a sick worker who needs more money might work more slowly, or one worker’s job might require them to assemble pieces made by other workers, thereby limiting their productivity to the speed of those before them. More importantly, it may encourage workers to move too quickly, causing injuries or mistakes in production, and can breed competition and resentment, undermining workers’ sense of solidarity.

In a school, however, there is a great deal of intrinsic motivation. Most teachers, school therapists, hall monitors, and others choose to work in schools because we love children and want to have some positive influence on coming generations. Some people who work in schools are woefully misguided in what they think is best for young people—more importantly, everyone who works in schools thinks someone else is woefully misguided in what they think is best. That’s part of what makes schools such special places.

The best education a child can hope for is a well-rounded one, with teachers who disagree giving them different facts and different messages. In this way, students learn to question, to discern.

That being said, external motivation, like merit pay, is unlikely to influence teachers’ abilities to move their students towards the particular ideal of scholarship that they hold so dear, as they are generally already putting as much effort into that as they are able. Possibly they could get to school a little earlier than they are used to, they might gather a few more materials, might come up with a few more external motivators for their students, but none of this is likely to bear very heavily on how much students can actually learn.

What teachers can control is what students learn. This is where merit pay goes from ineffective to dangerous.

If a teacher’s merit is gauged on students’ test scores, teachers will be inclined to spend less time on those things that drive them to teach, and more time on the narrowly defined set of “testable” items. This leaves teachers feeling drained and disrespected. It encourages districts to “teacher proof” their curricula, sometimes relying on expensive, pre-packaged materials and lessons.

The problems of evaluating teachers under merit pay goes beyond test scores. When teachers’ pay is going to be linked to their evaluations, the district has a monetary incentive to skew evaluations down. The current BTU contract has a provision which stipulates that the Joint Oversight Committee will “determine whether there are worksites that have experienced significant change in the proportion of teachers receiving lower evaluations as compared to the previous school year. If so, an investigation shall be conducted including the examination of the evidence used in reaching the decisions.” However, you may note that this provision really only requires that principals find good reasons to rate their staff as low as possible.

I have heard from principals, though have not been able to confirm, that they are being told that the proportion of proficient teachers in their schools should match the proportion of students in the school who are proficient on state tests. Until teachers wise up and start avoiding low-performing schools, this will result in lower evaluations for good teachers who choose to work with challenged students.

Allow me to give an example: Two very good teachers I know left the traditional Baltimore City schools to transfer to a new charter in East Baltimore. They worked hard for a few years, fighting the odds and the tide of reform in order to challenge their students and push them to learn. Despite the efforts of these two, who I will call Ms. K and Mr. S, the school did not make “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP), as stipulated by No Child Left Behind. Over the summer, they found out their young principal was being reassigned because of his apparent failure to improve the school.

I should note that, during this time, Mr. S was awarded Model Teacher status, the highest level classroom teachers can reach under the current contract. He is beloved throughout the school system as a brilliant teacher, a true team player, and an upstanding example of the ideal educator.

At a faculty meeting this month, the new principal addressed teachers’ oft repeated concerns that the students at the school were not performing on grade level when they entered the school—a fact which should influence how progress is measured. A sophomore reading at a tenth grade reading level in September should certainly be reading on an eleventh grade level by June. However, if the sophomore sitting next to her is reading at a fifth grade level in September and a seventh grade level in June, the teacher should be commended for having increased the students reading level twice as quickly as was expected, not chastised for the fact that the student is still behind.

After acknowledging this, the principal instructed all teachers to meet as departments for one hour to brainstorm and discuss ways that students are hampered by being behind, and ways that teachers can work together to help them catch up.

After the hour was over, the principal reassembled the teachers. He then asserted that, since they’d had an hour to work on the problem, he would take “no excuses” moving forward; he expected all students to be on grade level in all subjects by January 15th.

According to Ms. K, teachers were “outraged. We were like: ‘are you serious?’ This is absolutely ridiculous.” The principal, however, was deaf to their concerns.

I asked Mr. S if he felt this might be used to give teachers lower expectations. He told me a very sad story. Remember, as you read it, that this is not just a great teacher, but a celebrated teacher, lauded even by the data-hungry bureaucrats.

During his formal observation less than a month ago, he and his class read through a very difficult passage. They did what we call a shared reading, where everyone has the same text in front of them and students and teacher take turns volunteering to read aloud. During this particular read aloud, Mr. S was having students share their insights with the class. The class would then discuss each one, before deciding how to enter it into a notetaking aid called a Dialectical Journal.

There is a great deal of solid educational research pointing to this strategy as a great one for helping students to critically interact with difficult texts. In fact, BCPSS held professional development this year, specifically training English teachers in this technique and encouraging them to use it.

The principal and vice principal, both of whom had been in Mr. S’s classroom for the observation, rated him much lower than he had ever been rated in his 8 years in Baltimore City. They based this on the fact that his entire lesson was whole-group instruction, with no time spent on individual or group work.

He pushed back, saying that he was just teaching them how to use this strategy with such a challenging text. He showed them evidence that the students had improved in their abilities and understandings. He brought in research to back up the idea that “gradual release of responsibility” need not happen in every lesson—that is, that it’s OK to keep the whole class working together on a new skill, or an old skill applied in a new context.

Hi concerns were largely unheeded, and his official paperwork, for the first time in 8 years, bears a blemish.

These students were miseducated in crumbling, underfunded schools, in overcrowded classes with overworked teachers—for years before they got to this school. Now, because they showed up with educational deficits, their teachers are being set up to receive low evaluations, which may affect their pay rates as well as their jobs.     

Baltimore’s students deserve better.

The contract states, “By no later than January 30, 2013, the Joint Oversight Committee must certify that a research base and body of evidence upon which the BPPSLP concept has improved professional practices, increased student learning, and increased career acceleration and opportunities as evidenced by increased interval and Pathway movement and lead teacher placement. If the Joint Oversight Committee does not so certify, the BPPSLP shall terminate on January 30, 2013, and the then existing pay scale shall be converted into a traditional salary scale based upon steps and lanes with no loss of salary or benefits.”

That date is barely more than two months away. Most people know how relatively easy it is to manufacture data that “proves” just about anything. It seems likely that the JOC will come up with some sort of “research base and body of evidence.”

There is a great deal of evidence to show that this contract has NOT increased student learning. It is true that many teachers make more now, and have accelerated their earnings rather quickly. However, it is also the case that, the way the contract is structured, many people were able to quickly move ahead based on credits they had earned in the past when there was no incentive to do so.

Now, however, the rate at which teachers can move up will slow significantly. Teachers who do not earn Proficient ratings—whether because they are struggling or because they are unpopular or because the principal has been told to rate them lower—will be forced to pay for coursework or spend hours documenting how their teaching improves student outcomes. Either option gives those teachers less time to spend planning interesting, rigorous lessons, grading student work, making personal connections with students as fellow workers, and taking care of themselves and their families.

Let’s build a movement to respect students and teachers. Let’s make Baltimore’s schools into places of creativity and curiosity. Let’s learn from Chicago and fight for the schools Baltimore’s students deserve.

Iris Kirsch

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"5290","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"300","style":"width: 400px; height: 300px; float: left; margin-right: 0.5em","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"400"}}]]Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.