There are those who believe that one method of improving student achievement in our public schools is to pay teachers’ salaries based upon merit, i.e., raise their salaries based upon the success of their students.
Proponents of this initiative believe that if teachers know their salaries will increase as the success of their students improves, they will be motivated to work harder and do more to insure that our children master the skills that are necessary to lead productive lives as adults.
Advocates of merit pay make the incorrect assumption that many of our teachers are not already giving their best effort to effectively teach the children in our public schools. There are several reasons why the idea of merit pay has no merit — not when you are talking about educating children.
Teaching is not an exact science: Children are not like cars, computers, cosmetics or other products that are marketed in our culture. Children each have their individual abilities, thought patterns, personalities, and ambitions. Children cannot be re-programmed, re-configured, altered, and improved to meet the desires of a manufacturer or marketer. Children are generally grouped together with diverse abilities, diverse backgrounds, and diverse personalities.
It is important for teachers to establish an educational balance within the classroom, making sure that students of lesser ability are not left behind by students with accelerated learning abilities. By the same token, students who grasp and retain concepts and are able to effectively apply them must not be allowed to become bored with learning because the teacher is focusing on bringing up the performance of students who do not learn as fast or retain knowledge as well.
Home environments are not always conducive to learning: Many of the students in public schools, particularly in densely populated areas, come from families where educational opportunities have not been capitalized upon. In Detroit, for example, 47 percent of the adult population is functionally illiterate. This has a profound effect upon a child’s ability to learn because there is too often no one at home to help reinforce what is taught in school. In addition, many parents are intimidated by the school environment due to their own lack of educational success.
The child, who hears disparaging remarks made by the parent toward the teacher and the school in general, absorbs that attitude. When the child knows that the parents have little or no regard for the school and the teachers, the child is more likely to adopt that same attitude.
Stability and nutrition: Sixty percent of our students in large urban areas come from families who live at or below the poverty level. Many qualify for free or reduced lunches. Many children do not receive adequate health care, thus preventing mental, emotional, or physical problems from being properly and effectively diagnosed and treated. Too many children are not adequately fed on a daily basis, may not have heat and lights or adequate clothing at home, or may suffer from other adverse conditions affecting their ability to focus on learning.
Many students, because of their family conditions, have a high transience rate, moving from one place and one school to another. Programs like Open Court reading that address this concern by attempting to establish a learning schedule only relieve one of these concerns; it does not eliminate them.
Attendance: One of the most chronic problems public educators face is poor attendance. There is a direct correlation between high academic achievement and student attendance. Generally, the child who is in school every day is more inclined to achieve academic success. Their progress is easier to monitor, deficiencies are easier to address, and continuity of instruction is maintained. Attendance problems have now filtered down even to the early elementary levels of education. This has a long-term effect: A high school student who has had poor attendance throughout his/her educational life, and has not mastered the basic educational skills, will continue to struggle academically and will often lose interest and be more inclined to disrupt the educational environment in school.
Substance abuse issues: An increasing number of students are now coming into our school systems from homes where substance abuse is a fact of life. Alcohol/drug fetal syndrome children are now of school age, and their problems physically and mentally have not been adequately addressed. The proliferation of drugs in our communities further compounds the academic challenges students face.
There are other issues — such as what would be the benchmarks that determine merit? Who will be the evaluator of a teacher performance? How do you measure the effectiveness of a teacher working with an accelerated learning group, against a teacher who was given classes of students with limited skills, poor attendance and persistent behavior problems — and who received no parental support?
Is it reasonable to evaluate the performance of a teacher when he or she does not have adequate supplies and facilities and equipment to meet the educational needs of the students?
Before the discussion moves to paying teachers based upon merit, we need to look at addressing the social ills that are inhibiting our children’s ability to learn. We need to make sure that every child is receiving the nutrition, health care, and social support they need to enhance their opportunity to learn.
Education budgets must be increased so that there is equity between poor urban and rural communities, and their wealthier suburbs. When these strategies are in place, then and only then should the possibility of merit pay even enter any discussion on the future of education.
Virginia Cantrell is the Executive Vice President of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.