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Does Merit Pay Pay?

March 18, 2000|MARY REESE BOYKIN

Los Angeles Unified School District officials are proposing offering merit pay to teachers. A teacher at any school that surpasses its target score on the Stanford 9 would earn $2,000. Teachers at the district's 300 lowest-performing schools could earn an extra $3,000 if students meet their growth target and increase their statewide ranking. Teachers could earn an additional $2,000 for developing specialized skills in their subject areas, especially in mathematics and science. A typical new teacher's salary of $37,000 could increase to $44,000 with these merit pay incentives.

But will increasing teachers' pay mean better student performance? MARY REESE BOYKIN spoke with educators and a district graduate.


Social studies teacher, Dorsey High School

My major objection to merit pay for teachers is that students will be the losers. If you pay a teacher based on the performance of students on standardized tests, teachers will teach to the test. But are these test results the panacea for the schools' ills? Are they given too much weight? Possibly, a portfolio that shows where a student began and how he progressed during the year may be a greater measure of achievement. Of course, the state said that if teachers taught to the test, their students' scores will be invalidated. Left unanswered is how do teachers help students improve without teaching to the test?

Merit pay ignores the real problem: Education funding in California--41st in school funding nationally--is inadequate.

Sections of the Stanford 9 are not aligned with the school's curriculum. In ninth grade, for example, students are tested on economics and statistics, academic areas that are studied later in their high school career. In some families, because of the parents' education, students and parents talk regularly about economics, so those students will be at an advantage.

The only correlation ever found to high test scores is high family income. Yet 72% of the students in LAUSD come from families with low incomes.

A teacher's responsibility is to set high standards and work every day to help students meet the standards. Prior to becoming a teacher, I practiced law. Schools need to attract those with experience in other fields who can help students understand the relevancy of learning to the work world. But many will not be attracted to teaching if they can't maintain their standard of living on a teacher's salary, a salary that is only slightly above charity.

Merit pay doesn't work because it does not separate the good teachers from the bad ones. Some of what happens on students' test performance is out of a teacher's control. I teach the highest-performing students, so I would likely receive merit pay. Yet I cannot claim credit for all their performance because they came to me with a level of preparation.


Retired teacher and principal

Ioppose merit pay because I believe that politics will influence decisions. As long as human beings determine who will receive merit pay, favoritism and nepotism will be hard to control. I believe that all teachers should be paid adequately, and they are not presently paid adequately. But I do believe that teachers should be held accountable for students' learning. As things now stand, nobody is accountable for anything.

But you don't just hold teachers accountable; you set up meaningful staff development. Grape Street School in Watts had the second-lowest scores in the district when I became principal in 1969. Most students performed four years below their grade level. I requested a flexible schedule so that school was dismissed an hour earlier on Wednesdays, allowing two hours for staff development.

Just as teachers must model learning for students, administrators must model teaching for teachers. In schools we must be realistic and give teachers the help they need. Sometimes, that means teaching the teacher basic skills. It was alarming to me the number of times I had to tell a teacher, "No, it's not 'he don't'; it's 'he doesn't'." Modeling is a basic strategy in teaching, and the teacher must be a model of standard English if he or she is to pass skills to students. At Grape Street, after four years of meaningful staff development and modeling, hardly any child was more than a year below grade level.

But I do not favor the Stanford 9 as a measure of a teacher's success. For one thing, both teachers and students cheat.

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