A 260-Million Dollar Experiment

We are about to begin an expensive experiment here in Texas, an experiment that will eventually prove that business-style economic incentives for teachers, which are tied to students’ performance on TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) tests, create more problems than they solve.  Governor Rick Perry, a politician who, as far I can determine, has never spent a day in a classroom as a teacher, has long advocated merit pay for teachers.  Now it’s a done-deal.  He is convinced, according to a Dallas Morning News article dated June 12, 2006, that this merit-pay program will push Texas to the forefront of national educational standards.  But, if only teachers in Texas could vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election, I personally doubt that he could be reelected.

On June 29th, according to a posting in Chron.com, Governor Perry poured praises on Texas educators in front of a statewide teachers’ group, The Texas Classroom Teachers’ Association, reminding them that it was he who signed into law their upcoming $2,000 across-the-board pay raise.

Thank you very much, Mr. Perry, but I’m quite sure that we teachers in Texas are still being paid less than the national average (The Cost of Underpaying Texas Teachers).  Despite this fact, Governor Perry said during the news conference, “When it comes to teacher compensation, I am of the belief that you can never pay a good teacher enough because of a lifelong impact that he or she has upon children.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do more,” Perry said, drawing applause from the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.  But he was treated with complete silence from the group when he defended the state’s standardized student testing program and took a swipe at Democratic opponent Chris Bell for advocating reducing the role for testing in public schools.

Bell has said that he wants to end high-stakes testing in Texas and “teaching to the test” in schools.  He has said that he wants the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test to be used, but for diagnostic purposes.  I have been hearing most of my fellow teachers saying that they agree with candidate Bell.

“The high-stakes nature of the TAKS test is corrupting our curriculum and driving teachers from the profession.  Teachers don’t like being treated like glorified test monitors and then being paid accordingly,” said Bell’s spokesman, Jason Stanford. “And that’s why Rick Perry heard crickets today at the teacher conference.”

In my humble opinion, merit pay in Texas will be even less popular with teachers than has been No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  I don’t doubt that merit pay will improve test scores in some instances, but I fail to see how it will do much to improve learning.  The two are not the same thing.  Josef Albers, a famous German immigrant teacher and artist once said, “Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.”  More time spent drilling students on likely TAKS test questions means less time spent asking the right questions and helping students learn how to think.
Still to be determined on a district-by-district basis, is just how the merit-pay money will be rewarded.  Teachers and educational administrators all know that coming up with equitable formulas for this will be difficult if not impossible.  That’s why Austin is leaving this part of the program for districts to figure out.  Disgruntled, past-over educators will have no recourse beyond local school boards for complaints.

To illustrate why merit-pay award schemes will all fail the fairness test, consider my situation.  I teach World Geography to high-school freshmen, a social studies subject that is quite comprehensive.  It includes some earth science, some biology, some climatology, some history, some government, some economics, some language, some art, etc., etc.  But the social studies TAKS is not administered until students’ junior year.  It covers all social studies subjects, each taught at different grade levels, but with an emphasis on U.S. history.

Now, let’s say student Johnny Q’s social studies TAKS results turn out to be stellar.  Great!  But to whom to we give the credit?  To whom do we give the reward, his 11th grade history teacher, me, or his 3d grade teacher who made the greatest, albeit unmeasurable contribution by working above and beyond the call inspiring Johnny to enjoy reading?  We teachers all know that the TAKS is primarily a reading test.  So, in theory at least, how well Johnny did was the cumulative effect of a variable string of teachers and classroom environments, to say nothing of home and community environments, that none of Johnny’s teachers involved had the least bit of control over. 

All plans for distribution of merit-pay dollars devised by districts must comply with guidelines developed by state Education Commissioner, Shirley Neeley, who also will approve each application for an incentive pay grant.  Districts are not required to participate, but few are expected not to.  It’s big money.

Merit pay for teachers will have another effect too, an effect that our legislators don’t seem to care about.  Surely it has been brought to their attention; teachers’ groups have been providing Austin with every argument at their disposal for the past eleven years or more to combat the growing support for this idea.  When teachers begin to compete with one another for merit-pay awards to supplement their meager wages, cooperation between teachers will wane, especially between the seasoned, more experienced teachers and the younger ones.  How tragic!

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Published in: on July 4, 2006 at 10:15 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. I didn’t know that this was the current situation in Texas. I have to say that I agree with all of your arguments against the merit plan. You’re absolutely correct when you say that teachers will cease to cooperate with each other if they’re competing for the same bonuses. What a horrible situation that would be…. Please see my website at http://www.thebizofknowledge.com.

  2. I could not agree more. I am the only candidate for state rep coming out of the classroom (5th grade) with school board experience in the entire state. In Pasadena ISD we have had performance pay for several years. I filed a grievance to try and stop it and several times (for others) when gross inequities occurred. It has torn campuses apart (one campus had 17 transfers in one year) and caused major problems on several campuses each year. This is over only $750 or so. Everything you said has happened to campuses in Texas. My district is at the southern end of Harris County.

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