My Turn: Merit pay for teachers isn't answer to problem

Posted: Sunday, October 26, 2003

A recent "My Turn" by Scott Granse argued for the use of merit pay(Monday, Oct. 20).While generally supporting education and teachers, Mr. Granse makes the assertion that perhaps one, or two or one-fourth of the teaching staff may currently think that "...there is no getting to them (the kids) anymore".The suggestion appears to be that Mr. Granse believes that a large number of teachers don't deserve pay increases. But to his credit, Mr. Granse also acknowledges the need for higher pay for teachers because ofthe "...seemingly widening gap between (teachers) and the school district" over pay.

While our teachers need as many supporters as possible, establishing a merit pay system is fraught with its own baggage. Let me enumerate a few of the problems.

(1) What criteria would be used to establish merit? Would we give the students tests at the beginning and end of each school year, and base salary on the differences in scores? Would you do that for kindergartners and first graders as well as high school students? One difficulty is that student progress in the early years is controlled by the principle of readiness. Some kids just aren't ready to learn the basics of reading. Would their teachers be paid less because of this factor, no matter how skilled the teachers were in trying to prepare their students? At the other end, many high school subjects require a lot of homework, something many students refuse to do regardless of what the teacher does to try to motivate them.

(2) Would you use student evaluations to determine pay increases?What would that be like? Think what a popularity contest that could become. Are the teachers we remember most that had an impact on our lives the "popular " ones? Or were they teachers that required us to work harder than we had ever worked before. Often I've found that teachers who are "boring" to one student have a high level of interest for another student primarily because of interest in the subject matter. How fair would such student evaluations be, especially if the students knew that pay increases were dependent on them?

(3) Would you base merit pay on principal evaluations?There certainly is a time factor in enabling a principal at our high school with 60-plus staff enough time to complete the number of evaluations on each one of the teachers. But are principals really trained to do such evaluations? And what of personality conflicts? Or conflicts over what curriculum ought to be taught or texts ought to be used? Would you ask a principal whose subject area of knowledge as a teacher might be physical education or music or social studies to enter into a curricular difference in the area of mathematics with a teacher who had been teaching math for 20 years?

(4) Or how about using a system of peer review? Asking teachers to evaluate each other as to whether they should get a merit pay increase? I would ask Mr. Granse how he would feel if he were to evaluate other real estate brokers (his stated profession)to determine their eligibility for merit pay increases? One can only imagine what the next real estate brokers luncheon might be like if that were ever implemented? Many teachers are happy to help other teachers who are having difficulties, or who want suggestions in working with particular students. But such assistance would be something altogether different if it included a merit pay increase evaluation.

Rather than a merit pay increase system, administrators currently have tools to deal with teachers who are listless, unmotivated, or are having an off year. Why invent something else before we use the skills and tactics that are currently available - only if administration is willing to use its current resources. But it is not easy.

Teaching is a very complicated task. Suggesting that we get rid of teachers who after 20 years may have lost their way sounds more like what corporate America might do to lower its retirement payout. Teachers do lose their way, just like people do in all professions. But perhaps we ought to treat teachers with the same level of humaneness we expect of them towards our children.

•Steve Wolf is a retired teacher, former principal and former University of Alaska Southeast faculty member who lives in Juneau.

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