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July 12, 2011 2 min read

—Rick Hess

‘Bad Teacher,’ and Merit Pay

I dug the new film “Bad Teacher.” This kind of black comedy scrapes away familiar sentiment and can permit funny, unnerving—and frequently revealing—glimpses of human nature.

Take the movie’s treatment of merit pay. Cameron Diaz’s “bad teacher” decides she needs breast implants to land a wealthy husband. Lacking the $10,000, she pockets cash from an R-rated middle school car wash and bribes from parents. When she learns there’s a $5,700 cash bonus for the teacher whose class scores highest on the state test, she turns from a burnout serial-movie shower into a motivated (if inept, mean-spirited) instructor.

The merit-pay scheme in question bears little resemblance to what actually exists, but it tells some interesting truths about merit pay.

“Bad Teacher” offers the most straightforward accounting of the underlying assumptions of paying-for-scores that I’ve seen. A lousy, unmotivated teacher is inspired to work much harder to earn the cash. There you go: honest, straightforward, incentive-driven—and utterly disinterested in the larger purposes of schooling. She changes her behavior because there are rewards for doing so. There’s no expectation that the change is permanent, or even that she’ll teach any better—only that she’ll teach harder. And, it should come as no surprise that she looks for an opportunity to cheat when other efforts aren’t getting it done.

Yet, many merit-pay champions pretend that such policies easily coexist with their grand ambitions of recruiting educators fueled by an evangelical commitment.

I’m fine with self-interest, think it’s a mistake to place too much emphasis on rewarding teachers based on today’s test scores, and therefore will reiterate that I ardently support differentiating pay based on work and role—with student performance constituting one part of that.

The bigger point, especially for those of you supporting rethinking pay, is that there are unanticipated consequences which are too rarely addressed. —Rick Hess


How People Learn About Schools

Watch the trailer for “Bad Teacher”—it takes less than a minute.

What does this movie spot reveal to you concerning our collective beliefs about education in America? We used to be No. 1—whatever that means—but now the immoral idiots who staff our schools have dragged us down to No. 17?

What does it say to the kids, cranky sorts, ideologues, and average Joes who drive past public schools but haven’t been in one since 1975?

I am not convinced that people have good filters for what’s true and what’s distorted when it comes to the reality of public schooling. I worry, a lot, about discernment—the ability to figure out who’s zoomin’ who on complex education issues. I worry most about kids. What does it mean to a 5th grader when a two-minute movie trailer suggests that your school now stinks, compared to the rest of the world—and the reason is your lousy teachers? —Nancy Flanagan

A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as Blogs of the Week