Is There Merit in Merit Pay?

Written by Jill Chapin. Posted in Opinion

Published on March 13, 2009 with 3 Comments

By Jill Chapin

March 13, 2009

President Obama is ready to talk merit pay for teachers. He says this because he believes that the most important factor in a child’s success in school is the person standing at the front of the classroom.

I disagree. The most important factor in a child’s success at school is strong, loving parental control at home. Hopefully, the president will continue to unabashedly address the increasing abdication of parents who allow teachers to bear the brunt of blame for failing to educate their kids.

No amount of money awarded to excellent teachers can undo the deleterious effects of a bad home life that accompanies kids into the classroom. You can’t wake up a child who watched TV until midnight, or make him pay attention when he wasn’t given dinner the night before, or make him concentrate after watching mom and dad fighting, or missing a dad he never knew. No teacher can break through a drug or alcohol-induced haze when trying to teach algebra. No teacher can hold a student accountable for obscene language and violence without the full cooperation of parents to discipline.

He is right about the state of our schools. They are deplorable by anyone’s measure. And I’m glad he’s ready to do something big. His call for more charter schools is a good start, even if it’s only for those who get in, because those who do are usually more motivated, along with their parents, than those in traditional schools.

His position on merit pay, however, warrants closer scrutiny if merit pay is based on student achievement rather than teacher achievement. If he means to base it on teachers who take advanced courses, or get advanced degrees, then that is a solid, objective basis for merit pay.

But basing teacher pay on such gossamer goals as student progress, academic achievement and performance demonstration is problematic. How do you measure and define achievement and performance? Consider the following:

– When teachers teach to the standardized tests, their students are simply taught to answer certain questions. Does this measure real learning?

– Grades cannot be a useful gauge because they are so inflated as to be rendered nearly meaningless.

– If pay is based on student performance, do teachers in advanced classes get a higher salary than those who teach special needs children? Will a teacher be penalized for lower grades by students who are chronically absent? Will they get some leeway for less instruction time due to behavioral classroom disruptions?

– Test scores and dropout rates can be altered by administrators. California students are required to pass the Test of Essential Skills in order to earn a high school diploma. A local school gave diplomas to failing students anyway so they would not appear on the school’s dropout list. So with tongue in cheek, keep in mind that when California brags that 87% of our states’ students complete four years of high school, 64.7% of all statistics are made up.

– The suggestion of offering higher salaries to math and science teachers might seem valid upon first blush. But what about those students who are hopelessly math and science-challenged even with the best of teachers? Should higher salaries maybe go to those who teach vocational training classes so those students could be adequately prepared for a job upon graduation? Could it be that all qualified teachers deserve good salaries?

Basing teachers’ salary on their competence while ignoring a staggering level of parental incompetence is wasteful folly. Beware of merit pay based on easily-inflatable student performance statistics. Continuing to throw more money at the educational system while allowing parents to continue to abdicate their responsibility reminds me of something Albert Einstein once said:

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Jill Chapin

Jill Chapin has been a guest writer and columnist in several Los Angeles area papers for over fifteen years. She has written a bilingual parenting book titled, "If You Have Kids, Then Be a Parent!" and a children's book entitled, "My Magic Bubble."

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Comments for Is There Merit in Merit Pay? are now closed.

  1. I just read your article and I am quite bothered by it. While of course nothing can really beat a good parent, teachers are the key. While I do not support merit pay, Obama is showing that we must understand how powerful the classroom is.

    San Francisco Superintendent likes to say “I don’t know about you, but I didn’t pick my parents.” For those students who were dealt a weak parental card, we have two options:
    1. Throw them to the side because they’re unsupported, or
    2. Try as best we can to help these children.
    Sadly, your article suggests we should do the former. But what’s worse is that you do not appear to understand how a teacher can in fact turn a child’s life around. I’m not a parent, but I’ve worked in schools and have seen how teachers can show life’s meaning and purpose to a student who had not seen such hope or expectations of themselves before.

    Teachers can and do everything that you said they cannot.

    Furthermore, you show general contempt for students. You act as if these children are lost to us forever. But a supported school district can have sports, arts, career training—all areas that make students love their school environment even if they are coming from the harshest of backgrounds. Obama’s flawed plan does triple federal support for schools, making these extra curricular options more affordable for Districts.

    But more importantly, most failing students are nothing like the dead-end cases you present, and you do a disservice to youth through this reporting. Most failing students have not understood the importance of their education, overcome emotional hardships (i.e PTSD), or just the difficulty of being a teenager. You might have forgotten, being a teen is hard, and a good friend—even in a teacher—is invaluable.

    You also show ignorance on other areas as well. While we lack good teachers in all areas, there is a clear problem in science and math because there are lucrative vocational opportunities in the private sector for the same college education. For other fields, such as English or social studies, teaching is in many ways the most accessible middle-income job available. Mot math and science teachers worth their salt, in my experience, were taking breaks from other jobs to do some teaching to give back–not as a career choice. This is why the Oakland Teaching Fellows is only for math and science.

    Now, I do appreciate all of your comments about the education system and how we measure success. But I strongly suggest that you understand more than one type of parent’s perspective when writing such articles.

  2. As a one-time teacher, I agree with the assessment that a child’s home life is more important to a his or her positive approach to learning than is the teacher standing at the head of the class. However, the teacher is also important but perhaps in a different way. I’ve known teachers who seemed to delight in firing off cutting remarks at random. Teachers like this can render a parent’s efforts almost fruitless. As someone who has also been exposed to standards against which students are measured and with merit pay systems, my experience tells me those systems are twisted from here to breakfast and back in attempts to maneuver through the loopholes. This is an excellent article.

  3. You’re right about parents being more important, but the only way to fix that is to impose standards for parenthood, but removing kids from their parents because they aren’t educating them well enough will never fly. Teachers are the only thing the state has control over.

    The approach I most favor is the “value-added” approach. Give the kids a test at the end of each year & see how much they’ve progressed. I’d probably also take the students’ socio-economic status into account,, somehow.

    Why are they talking about offering higher salaries for Math & Science teachers? Because someone able to get certified in math or science can (and often does) choose to study engineering, computer sci, medicine, etc. & get a job that pays much better than teaching.