The Math Forum

Search All of the Math Forum:

Views expressed in these public forums are not endorsed by NCTM or The Math Forum.

Math Forum » Discussions » Policy and News » mathed-news

Notice: We are no longer accepting new posts, but the forums will continue to be readable.

Topic: A demerit for merit pay
Replies: 0  

Advanced Search

Back to Topic List Back to Topic List  
Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
A demerit for merit pay
Posted: Jul 11, 2000 7:23 PM
  Click to see the message monospaced in plain text Plain Text   Click to reply to this topic Reply

From the Chicago Tribune, Tuesday, July 11, 2000, Inside Section 2, p. 1.


I don't know if Veltajean Olson would have qualified for a merit
bonus had they been available during her 33-year teaching career.

Her methods were a bit unorthodox. She taught her 3rd and 4th
graders how to dance the minuet and the Virginia reel, how to sing
her favorite songs and how to read a poem aloud. She showed them how
to take notes in outline form and how to deliver a book report, and
she devoted several weeks each year to the study of primitive
cultures that interested her.

The extras were a waste of time as far as the standardized tests were
concerned and unusual enough that professional evaluators of
classroom merit might have given her low marks.

But I do know that of all the great teachers my sister and I had
growing up, Olson -- still Mrs. Olson to me -- was the greatest. The
breadth of her enthusiasms inspired hundreds of her pupils from the
mid-1950s until her retirement in the mid-1980s to approach learning
with an encompassing vigor and to believe in themselves when faced
with challenges of all sorts.

I thought of Mrs. Olson when the issue of merit pay for teachers came
up last week at the National Education Association conference in
Chicago. Delegates voted down a proposal that the NEA endorse and
assist in experimental performance-based pay incentives for teachers,
after which local editorialists whipped them with a familiar lash:

The teachers union "still doesn't get it," scolded the Tribune,
invoking the image of "mediocre instructors" who are "reward[ed]
merely for showing up." The Sun-Times blasted the union's "poor
attitude" toward "a meek attempt to push teachers into the 21st
Century" and implied that the rejection of merit pay reflected
wholesale indifference and ineptitude among public school teachers.

Actually, those who don't get it are the ones who continue to push
the failed, 18th Century idea that paying teachers based on student
test scores or bureaucratic evaluations of their classroom skills is
a way to improve educational outcomes. A recent Education Week survey
detailed the unimpressive record of such experiments dating back
to1710, where they prompted widespread cheating in Great Britain,
through various recent American incarnations in which the lure of
bonuses reliably causes a narrowing of curriculum and an increase in
faculty tensions.

"It can't possibly work," said Mrs. Olson, now 79, when I reached her
Monday at her apartment across the street from the Ann Arbor, Mich.,
junior high where she still volunteers as a consultant. "Teaching is
all about character, personality and energy. It's an art. How can you
measure that? Who's going to decide who's the better teacher?"

She's no union hack and no apologist for mediocrity. But she and
other good teachers I spoke to about this know how poisonous
testing-mania is and how petty, arbitrary and vindictive school
administrators in charge of staff evaluations can be.

They also know that, independent of pedagogical skill, some classes
can make a teacher look good -- when they're flush with highly
motivated, obedient pupils with involved parents -- and some can make
a teacher look bad -- when they're overpopulated with insolent,
disruptive kids whose parents don't give a damn. They also know how
easy it is for demagogues to turn teachers into scapegoats for the
social pathologies that lie behind the so-called crisis in public

Good teachers know there are problems with the current system --
salaries based on seniority and credentials instead of talent lead to
moral inequities, and it's awfully hard to get rid of incompetent
teachers. But they know that the alternatives have so far proved
worse. So they remain deeply skeptical of the proposed market-style
quick fixes.

Would those of us who had Mrs. Olson been better off if she'd skipped
the dancing, the poetry, the singing and the gratuitous anthropology
in order to drill us in long division and vocabulary that might show
up on the standardized tests? Would the promise of bonuses give us a
few more like her?

"No, no, no," said Mrs. Olson, who, as far as I know, has never been
wrong about anything. "It would cause more problems than it would
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618) 453-4244
Phone: (618) 453-4241 (office)
(618) 457-8903 (home)


Point your RSS reader here for a feed of the latest messages in this topic.

[Privacy Policy] [Terms of Use]

© The Math Forum at NCTM 1994-2018. All Rights Reserved.