Merit Pay and Education: Why It Doesn’t Work

| July 19, 2011

Tests. Lots of professions have them. Most tests exist to evaluate someone or some thing. If a man goes to his doctor and complains of chest pain, a likely next step would be to test the man’s blood pressure. What would be unlikely is if the doctor suggested that the man get his teeth checked.

In schools, standardized tests are designed to test a child’s grasp of reading and math for their current grade level. The tests are not designed to determine how well the child’s teacher taught throughout the year, because the test is specifically evaluating the child’s knowledge.

All this pre-amble leads me to the point of this post: merit pay for teachers and its relation to standardized testing.  Throughout the past five years, the New York City Department of Education ran a study to determine whether merit pay made any difference on the success of public school teachers. What the study–one of several around the country–concluded was that merit pay made no difference whatsoever in a teacher’s performance.

ABT. Always Be Testing!

Why is this, you might ask? Well, for starters, most teachers are not in it for the money. In a report posted by the New York Times on July 17, the author stated, “Teachers also reported that improving as teachers and seeing their students learn were bigger motivators than a bonus, Dr. Marsh said.”

Second, standardized tests are designed to test students, not teachers.  The challenge for testers here is that all students  are different. They all learn differently. They each have separate and unique family and life experiences that they carry with them, which color their daily interactions and actions. And they are not little carbon copies of their teacher. This means that each student tests differently. One child might do very well on oral and written exams, but suffers from anxiety which hampers his or her success on standardized tests. This student will not present a true representation of what he or she has learned about the test from their teacher that year. The board will deem them a “loser” (to quote Diane Ravitch) and the teacher will probably be fired.

Third, each year a teacher gets a different class of children. One year a teacher might have all A-level students, another year might be a mixed bag and still another could be low-achievers. Thus, standardized tests, which are so rigid in their criteria and questioning, can not fairly assess teacher success (or student success, for that matter).  Here is an EXCELLENT breakdown of why merit pay and standardized tests are a big education FAIL.

Fourth, Jerome Bruner may have put it best with,”Knowing [i.e., learning] is a process, not a product.” In his “Notes on a Theory of Instruction” Bruner lays out the following thoughts on education:

To instruct someone… is not a matter of getting him to commit results to mind. Rather, it is to teach him to participate in the process that makes possible the establishment of knowledge. We teach a subject not to produce little living libraries on that subject, but rather to get a student to think mathematically for himself, to consider matters as an historian does, to take part in the process of knowledge-getting. Knowing is a process not a product. (1966: 72)

Teachers learn throughout their careers. If a 20 year veteran teacher could time travel back to her fifth year of teaching, surely she would see major differences between the way she taught when she was first developing as an educator and the way she teaches now. The same is true of students. Some are late bloomers when it comes to reading and writing, or math, but it doesn’t mean they won’t be able to understand the concepts. Standardized tests and merit pay try to treat people like products, each basically the same. This sad viewpoint dehumanizes one of the most humanizing professions – and experiences – in the world.

Teachers should be evaluated, there is no doubt about it. However, they deserve the respect to be evaluated individually, as separate human beings with unique talents and experiences, just like their students.