Performance Anxiety

When I was a young lad, I was usually a good student.  Straight A report cards were regularly stuck to the fridge.  When there was a problem with my performance, however, the first person my parents questioned about that was me.  Had I not studied enough for that test?  Did I read all of the chapters I was supposed to have read?  Simply stated: it was my fault.

Now that I’m a teacher, with many friends who teach all across this great country, it seems that failure is still my fault.  President Obama said as much today as he reaffirmed his claims that he would seek to institute merit-based pay for teachers.

New teachers will be mentored by experienced ones… Good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement, and asked to accept more responsibilities for lifting up their schools. (New York Times 10 Mar. 2009.)

Sounds great, right?  As a teacher who is always trying new things and attempting to be innovative, this concept should be one that sends little shivers of excitement up my spine.  When my students perform well, I will be rewarded.  That’s often how the business world works and from what we’ve seen lately from the business/financial sector, why wouldn’t we want to emulate them?  But, hey, when students are failing, it must just be the teachers fault.

This debate has been around much longer than I have been a teacher, so I doubt I’ll be adding too much to it, unless you count my two cents.

What I do know is that a merit-based pay system will not work.  This side of paradise there are just too many variables to take into consideration before we “award” teachers with merit-based pay.

In the three short years I’ve been teaching, I have had three very different groups of students.  Even within each of those groups, the individual classes varied dramatically.  One year I might have had a group that would excel at everything we did.  The next year, I might have lessons or units that have been improved/clarified, and yet that particular group will struggle through every week and every unit of study.  Any teacher who has taught for more than one year will tell you that each year is a unique mixture of students, be it for better or worse.

Not to mention the inequality in student populations across the country.  Taking into consideration language barriers, family income, parental involvement, neighborhood environments… before paying teachers for their performances becomes a fair and viable solution, all of those factors would have to be equal across the board.

Even the best teacher is going to struggle with a student if there is no support coming from home.  Parents are just as important, if not more important, to their children’s educational success as an effective teacher.  Try telling that teacher who is working their fingers to the bone to get their students to succeed, despite a lack of parental involvement, that merit-based pay is the best solution for our educational system.

During my first year as a teacher, I had a student who I was expecting would be enrolled mostly in Honors courses their first year of high school.  After taking a test that would later be used to determine their high school placements, the student’s score indicated that they should be placed in Special Education classes.  Now, that test was scheduled the day after Halloween — a horrible day to administer a test that appears to carry such weight — and who knows why that particular student performed so poorly on the test.  Multiply that by several more students and tell me how merit-based pay would work for me as a teacher?

And how will this “merit” be judged?  What exactly are they evaluating to determine whether we’re worthy of this higher salary?  How can they guarantee that there won’t be any favoritism or cheating?  I think I also missed where all this extra money is going to come from.

This whole concept makes me nervous, because I have a feeling that something like this would turn teaching into a competitive profession and not the collaborative one that it should be.


McKinsey & Company, 2007.

I want to throw something out there, but I don’t think I can coherently delve as deeply into it right now as I’d like. I’ll come back to it later.  I was reading through a report on “How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top” by McKinsey & Co. done in September 2007.  There was an interesting section in the report about teacher recruitment and teacher training done in the most successful school systems in the world.  Instead of solely rewarding or punishing ineffective teachers once they have infiltrated the school systems, they actually spend more time scrutinizing applicants to teacher training programs before they even go through the training.  As I mentioned, I haven’t had enough time to process this idea to the point where I’m ready to fully try to analyze it, defend it, or tear it to pieces… maybe later!

There are districts that have implemented this kind of salary plan and are thriving because of it, so I don’t doubt that it might work in a few instances.  However, I’m not sure how this would work on a national level.  There is no guarantee that a merit-based system would be any more effective across the board than what we already have.

When we’re discussing effectiveness, fairness, rewarding results, and so on, I can’t help but leave you with two quotes that sum up what I was feeling today as I heard the news report about Mr. Obama’s speech:

The world more often rewards the appearance of merit than merit itself. (François de La Rochefoucauld)

I have a bad feeling about this. (Han Solo)

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