When Centennial High School English teacher Jordan Kohanim suggested that I run a column on the Monday print education page against merit pay to balance the one in favor it last week, I asked if she would write a piece. She and Northview High colleague Ashley Ulrich quickly produced this piece, which runs in Monday’s AJC Opinion section. Enjoy.
By Jordan Kohanim and Ashley Ulrich
Furloughs. Pay cuts. Class size increases. With all these factors, the talk about merit pay and the proposal of Senate Bill 386 brings Georgia public education to a crossroads. By switching to merit pay at this critical time, not only is the legislation dropping the proverbial straw on the camel’s back, legislators are setting up a system that will harm students for much longer than their terms in office.
The bill, which is not clear on how exactly teachers will be compensated, does claim to rely on more than just test scores to gauge teacher quality. Sadly, the fact of the matter is there are not enough resources nor enough time to devote meaningful observations that would measure a teacher’s performance. Test scores would become a large enough factor in determining teacher quality and the devastating effects of relying on such data would become widespread. Test scores also make an easy sound bite for politicians—without getting into the messy business of actually measuring learning.
What is the problem with using testing data to determine teacher effectiveness? It hurts students. First, most educational research argues that testing does not measure student achievement, progress, or even potential. In fact, these numbers are so easily manipulated that they can be skewed for political agenda and end up demoralizing children that do not deserve such labels as “failed.” For decades, research has also argued that standardized tests disadvantage large populations of students. By measuring teacher effectiveness partly on this testing, schools that work with these student populations are already set behind, as well. The reverse is also true: schools (and students) at the top of the testing range have difficulty showing substantial gains. How do we quantify a gain when students are already earning “exceeds standards” marks on the CRCT or the EOCT?
Tests also do not measure skills that will be essential in an evolving global marketplace. If schools are to emphasize 21st century skills like innovation, creativity, technical skills, and critical thinking—standardized testing actually discourages them.
Another cause for concern is that curriculum, in response to increased accountability to testing, will pare itself down to test-prep. This has been proven by other states, like New York, who have seen this detrimental shift because of the emphasis on testing. How are students going to compete nationally, let alone globally, if they can only think inside the box (or in this case—inside the bubble)?
Beyond this testing issue, merit pay also presents other drawbacks. The role of educators is multi-faceted and it includes objectives that are immeasurable. For example, one colleague said, “If a student enters my ninth grade classroom at a fourth grade reading level, I may not be able to get him to gain substantially in test scores, but I’m definitely going to keep him from dropping out.” Isn’t that an important goal too?
Merit pay also attempts to reward or punish teachers for factors far out their control. Teachers cannot control student homelessness, transferring into the school late in the year, or the lack of academic culture in which a student is raised.
At the same time, merit pay will ignore those few factors that are within a teacher’s control: pursuit of upper-level degrees and continuing education. By leaving out raises based at least partly on degrees earned, it will create a void of teachers earning their Masters, Specialist, or Doctoral degree. If a teacher has to devote years and thousands of their own dollars to a degree program, on a teacher salary that gets cut with furloughs and losses of raises, too many teachers will not be able to take that financial and time burden on themselves with no payoff clearly in sight.
There are alternatives to merit pay that can be investigated. The system we have now is not perfect. However, it does reward teachers for the only factor we can control: our own learning and professional development, our commitment to education, and observations made by our superiors. Instead of abandoning this entirely, why not improve the system we have now? For starters, the state could honor National Board Certification, which is a nationally normed standard used to gauge teacher quality. Systems could also institute a comprehensive review: that is, having feedback from fellow teachers, community members, as well as students.
Rather than completely destroying how the community controls the quality of education in favor of a system that has been proven to fail in states like Texas, our legislators need to slow down and re-evaluate. Senate Bill 386 is a race for funding, and it lacks any actual plan for implementation in the bill itself. Ultimately, it will lead to demoralizing teachers, stunting innovation in the classroom, dumbing down curriculum, and denying students the first rate education we want for them.
Supporting and passing this bill, as it stands now, starts Georgia’s public education down a slippery slope that is doomed to fail. Once this is done, it will be hard to un-do. Imagine a tractor that slides down a muddy hill and gets stuck. This will be us: spinning wheels and fighting to get any traction at all in a year, or two, or three, when educators and students witness the failures of merit pay firsthand.
Why can’t we try to go about things in a better, fairer, more productive, responsible manner now?