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Can Policymakers Incentivize Great Teachers with $$$?

By Diane Ravitch — March 04, 2008 2 min read

Dear Deb,

I am happy to join with you in adopting a bridging motto of “Neither guide on the side nor sage on the stage.” One of the things that brought me to admire you was your obvious passion about teaching, learning, and children. I said at the outset of our conversation that I would gladly entrust my children (who are now too old to entrust to anyone but their spouses!) and my grandchildren to your classroom.

Somehow, though, I think that teachers you admire could work within the context of a common curriculum that described the parameters of what is taught in each year, without specifying it in such detail that it cramped their creativity and freedom of action. A common curriculum, as E.D. Hirsch, Jr., has observed, need not take up more than 50 percent of the school day. And, I would add, it need not—should not!—prescribe answers to controversial issues.

But if I may change the subject, I’d like to turn to an issue that I think is of growing importance: Incentivizing education by paying people to produce higher test scores. I think of merit pay for teachers; bonuses for principals; even payments for students, all tied to student test scores. If they go up, everyone gets a reward. If they go down, no extra pay for anyone, possible sanctions for the grown-ups.

This is a way of thinking that now suffuses American public education. Just recently, Time magazine had a cover story about “how to make great teachers.” The answer, I am sorry to say, was to adopt some form of merit pay or performance pay. When I put that “solution” alongside what you wrote in your last blog about passion, relationships, community, and burning questions, it is depressing to see the contrast.

Will we really get “great teachers” by paying some more than others? What do you think?

I think that teachers should be paid more for doing more: for taking a more challenging assignment; for mentoring other teachers; for other kinds of responsibilities that call for additional effort and time. But I am troubled by the idea that annual changes in test scores (or even changes over two or three years) should determine who gets paid most. I can think of many reasons to object to this kind of “merit pay.” I suspect it will promote cheating scandals, that it will encourage teachers and principals to arrange for certain students to stay home or disappear on testing days, and that it may even encourage students to hold their teachers hostage with threats of not even trying.

My view is that education has become permeated with the language of management and business and corporate-speak. This is a verbal poison in the bloodstream of our schools.

Diane

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