How will merit pay fix anything?

Apparently the latest buzz word fix for the education problem in this country (and more specifically, this state) is merit pay. While I was already familiar with the system, I decided to do some extra research into it. I can’t say I’m enthusiastic about the idea. In fact, I think it is actually a harmful proposal.

Merit pay, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, is basically a system that removes tenure in favor of a pay scale that goes up with some sort of measure of student performance. In other words, teachers get more money if the kids do well on tests.

Uh oh.

Straight off the bat, three questions spring to mind:

— Are tests a true measure of student performance?

— What about schools with naturally gifted students?

— How do you judge an untestable class?

To start, multiple-choice standardized tests are a poor way of monitoring student performance on many levels. First of all, if we base educational funding around test taking then all of a sudden classes become about answers and not about questions. Thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers are already encouraged to only focus on test material. As I mentioned in a previous post, kids are now learning specific dates instead of the significance behind them. While this material might help them earn an A on a test, it does not help them learn about the world around them.

It is feasible in today’s school system that a child can graduate with a high score and yet be completely clueless to what they’ve “learned.” It is possible to teach to a specific test, giving students only the information they need to pass a test instead of information they need to adequately understand a subject.

Schools with a naturally high level of talented students would also reap the benefits, while those without them would not. Not to mention, it was fully possible to game the system put in place by the NCLB Act. How would merit pay be any different? Talented students are typically placed in high level honors classes — specialized classes that teach additional information to students who enjoy the material. Of course, however, these classes are more challenging and thus students in them typically score lower than those in the regular classes. Likewise, disabled students typically are shifted to courses that help them focus on very specific areas. How is it possible to balance these out within the merit system? If you apply the same scale to everyone, it will favor eliminating honors and special education classes and if you try to weigh the system by giving “merited” teachers the honored classes, won’t you be punishing the teachers — not to mention the students? Even if you give them extra protection or slack at the higher (or lower) levels, isn’t that just pay-scale reinforced tenure, the specific thing merit pay is suppose to replace?

In addition — what about school districts in rich communities that arguably have access to better resources? Wouldn’t these districts be continuously rewarded regardless of teacher performance? I fear that such a system would create a counter-productive revolving door in under-performing, challenging districts yet it would set up an even worse system of tenure in some schools.

Finally, how do you judge a class such as music or creative writing? What about journalism? Or art? Or even physical fitness? Would these classes be turned into cut-and-dry multiple choice classes with all of the unmeasurable creativity sucked out? Or, worse, would they completely disappear?

I’m not quite sure what would happen to them. I worry that they would ultimately be phased out in favor of “testable” classes. After all, addressing this to New Jersey’s system specifically, Governor Christie has already said he wishes for schools to simply build students to find jobs. While I feel that this is one job of our school system, I simply do not think it is the only one. Schools shouldn’t just create worker bees, they should create vibrant, educated citizens that can respond to the world around them in a clear manner. They should be a home for the mind as well as a training ground.

I don’t have the answer for New Jersey’s school system, I’ll freely admit that. I do, however, know that this isn’t the answer. Neither was the butchering of our state’s education budget over the past year.

Merit pay might sound good on paper, but in my mind it is just unquestionably broken in practice. We don’t need another No Child Left Behind fiasco.

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