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Merit pay for teachers

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Well-known member
Feb 14, 2005
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Southern SD
Merit pay? Please.
by Aaron Hanscom & Ari J. Kaufman
24 May 2005

How does opposing teacher salary incentives for high job performance help children?

All teachers are saints, incapable of succumbing to the baser instincts of human nature like laziness, selfishness or ingratitude. Of course, this assertion is as verifiably false as the statement that all car salesmen are honest, gracious and industrious.

While teaching is still viewed as a noble profession, Californians can be forgiven for viewing their children's educators in an increasingly suspicious light. Recent infighting among Los Angeles teachers over salary proposals have been revealing, showing internal differences that have been hidden for too long.

It's plain that eduators' oft-heard refrain, "It is all about the kids," isn't completely true. How does opposing teacher salary incentives for high job performance help children? Beyond the merit-pay debate, consider last month's near-implementation in Los Angeles of a "work to rule" policy, where teachers would have been instructed to leave school just 15 minutes after the bell rang each day. An empty parking lot might be a good way to express displeasure with one's compensation, but is it any way to help kids learn their multiplication tables?

It is essential that we retire this conflicting attitude faster than new teachers like us are "retiring" from the profession. It's human nature to work your hardest when there is an incentive, especially if it is monetary. While heart surgeons undoubtedly get satisfaction from helping their patients, only a few could honestly claim that their substantial salaries don't help make all the arduous work worth it.

If teachers don't get extra money for staying late or going above and beyond the call of duty, why in the world should they bother? We've all heard or uttered that unfortunate-but-true maxim: Teachers aren't in it for the money. This is the reason top college graduates are flocking to other white-collar professions, rather than wasting their intellectual abilities on a job which doesn't reward their efforts.

Gov. Schwarzenegger understands that we can't preserve the status quo when it comes to education. The current seniority system rewards teachers for length of service instead of performance. Aside from its essential unfairness, this system has not led to an improvement in the quality of education California students receive. While we do have many concerns about the governor's proposal for merit pay, we believe its overall effect would benefit both teachers and their students.

Of course, it is anxiety about their students' level of performance which petrifies teachers across California. Concerned that Schwarzenegger's proposal focuses too much on test scores, they overlook the fact that students will benefit from increased effort by teachers. They may wonder how will many teachers, long and wrongly uncompensated for their extra efforts, finally be rewarded.

And how will teachers whose lackluster efforts have been protected by the unions finally be held financially accountable when a pay increase depends on merit? Money runs every profession, even teaching. When pay is at stake, teachers will miraculously become more efficient.

On a daily basis, we observe many teachers who think they are happy doing the least amount of work possible. In the past few decades, with fewer passionate young people going into teaching, this mindset has taken hold: "We feel underpaid and underappreciated; thus our actions must replicate that consensus. Six and a half hours is all we should be at school and the less planning the better, because we are so overworked and underpaid."

But teachers who truly care about students are not content with a minimalist approach to education, even if the unions want them to be. If teachers were held accountable for the quality of their work, as in most other professions, they would start to feel better about themselves and their labor. Societal views would then follow suit. That's why the ultimate goal of merit pay should be to eradicate apathy from teaching and to create a much-needed impetus for teachers to improve.

We believe that test scores, for various valid reasons, should not be the sole criteria for performance-based pay. We suggest that announced evaluations by administrators and colleagues, punctuality, the classroom environment and organizational skills also be included in any future proposal for merit pay.

Finally, much tinkering needs to be done -- and much consideration needs to be given -- with respect to the tracking of teacher attendance. In the LAUSD, for example, after a teacher exhausts his or her 10 personal days, he or she is granted up to 90 additional days at half-pay. This is egregious, and many take advantage, as their high salaries can afford them this luxury. We believe that teachers who do not take the standard 10 personal days -- rather than having them carry over year to year -- should be financially compensated for the unused days.

This is another form of "merit pay," one which keeps teachers in the classrooms where they belong, rather than attempting to use up these days when they eventually leave the school district. Again, in the end, the students are the ones who profit from the most dedicated teachers teaching them.

When presented in a correct manner, we believe that no reasonable person could be against performance-based pay -- even if many teachers currently are.

Aaron Hanscon and Ari Kaufman are teachers at Shenandoah Street Elementary School in Los Angeles. Their blog is Partial Transcripts. First published in the Orange County Register. Republished with permission of the authors.

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