Education Opinion

Teacher Merit Pay

By Jerry Jesness — April 04, 2001 7 min read
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It’s clear that good teachers deserve more money—but good teaching isn’t always easily determined.

Teacher merit pay, a concept that education reformers are again touting as an innovation, is ancient history here in Texas. House Bill 72, the 1984 education reform legislation that included the famous “no-pass, no-play” provision for student athletes, also provided for a merit-pay system called the career ladder. In 1992, with little protest from teachers and administrators, the career ladder was quietly swept away, even before all of its provisions had been implemented.

Placement on the career ladder was based on graduate college credits and performance evaluations from superiors. Since Texas schools did not, like those in other states, automatically grant pay increases for graduate credits, such increases were granted only when good appraisals from administrators accompanied them. I had mixed feelings about the career ladder, perhaps because I had spent time at both the top and the bottom.

As with many teachers, my evaluations have covered an incredibly wide range. After my best evaluation ever, my evaluator invited me to repeat the lesson at a training session for novice teachers. After my worst, my principal asked, “How the hell did you get certified, and why the hell did we hire you?”

The first year of the Texas career ladder was my third year teaching in Texas and my eighth year teaching overall. Up to that year, I had never gotten bad marks from an administrator. That year, however, I received possibly the lowest evaluation in the history of education. On scales of one to five, I received two “twos” and five “ones.” What I found particularly surprising was my score of “one” for my command of spoken and written English. I considered my command of written English to be far superior to that of my appraiser, a former coach turned principal who could not compose a memo with fewer than a dozen grammatical and spelling errors. It was, however, his call.

That year had been a rough one. I was teaching low- group language arts. Several of my students were absent as often as they were present. Some weeks, half a dozen or so students dropped out, and their slots were filled by others who were sent down to my class by teachers of higher groups. One week, as the result of a raid on a pot party, a full 40 percent of my 4th period class was suspended for drug possession. One student was later suspended for dealing heroin. Another committed an armed robbery across the street from the school.

It became clear that my job was to hold my students within the walls of my classroom and to pass them. In fact, my principal told me that as long as we had “plans,” our district’s euphemism for ability grouping, no student should receive a failing grade. My neighbor, another low- group teacher who was held up to me as a mentor, boasted that he left the spelling words on the board during spelling tests and suggested that I do the same. He got along just fine. But every time I issued a round of grades, I found myself in the woodshed. My policy of trying to hold my low-group students to at least a minimal standard was poorly received by students and administrators alike.

My next job went much better. I was teaching beginning English-as-a-second-language, my field of greatest expertise, and since my class consisted of all of the recent immigrants from Mexico, I had students of all abilities and levels of motivation, not a concentration of problem students as I had had in my previous position. State officials had recently cited my new district for deficiencies in its ESL program, so my superiors had an extra reason to want my program to run smoothly. I had moved from classroom hell to classroom heaven.

Over the next seven years, my evaluations ranged between “exceeds expectations” and “clearly outstanding,” and I eventually earned a place on the highest rung on the career ladder and its $3,300 annual bonus.

When the Texas legislature did away with the career ladder, I only lacked one examination to qualify as a master teacher. Master teachers were to receive a $5,200 annual salary increase and a reduced teaching load in exchange for taking on administrative responsibilities.

If a teacher drew a rough class and an unsympathetic principal, she could kiss her bonus goodbye.

I had been looking forward to master-teacher status. I have never been interested in becoming a full-time administrator. If I am to work in a school, I prefer to be in the classroom at least part of the time. Besides, I doubt that I could stomach the large number of education classes I would have to take in order to get a master’s degree in school administration. The master-teacher system would have allowed me to apply my M.A. in Spanish literature. The whole point became moot in 1992, since the career ladder fell before any master teachers were designated.

I was, of course, sad to see the career ladder go. I was one of the winners. Most teachers did not feel the same way, and I could see their point. If a teacher drew a rough class and an unsympathetic principal, she could kiss her bonus goodbye. The same could go for teachers who graded too harshly or refused to incorporate the latest pedagogical fads into their teaching. For example, those who resisted the whole-language-reading tide, then considered to be the bright future of literacy, could be punished by having their career-ladder stipends revoked. Ditto for those who refused to pad grades, give preferential treatment to star athletes, narrowly teach to standardized tests, or compromise their academic integrity by catering to the whims of administrators and parents.

Although I was a competent teacher, perhaps even as good as my evaluations indicated, my high career-ladder placement involved a certain amount of luck. I got along well with both my principal and the director of the bilingual/ESL department in those years. Given my stubborn and sometimes abrasive nature, I usually aggravate at least a few of my superiors. Fortunately for me, none of the superiors I aggravated at the time had any direct authority over me.

Also fortunate for me was the attention that the state education agency had been paying to our ESL department. At that sensitive time, my district could ill afford to replace me with someone who might foul up the paperwork. My superiors had a special, albeit temporary, reason to keep me happy.

And I learned all the dog-and-pony- show techniques. That first year, I taught what was on the schedule to teach, regardless of who was watching. By the third year, I, like every other teacher in Texas, figured out that it is best to be reviewing something when the appraiser walks in. A teacher looks bad when students are struggling with a new concept. When teachers “teach” what the students already know, everybody looks good.

I probably would not have stayed at the top of the career ladder forever, anyway. While I have not had a truly dismal evaluation since 1985, many have been significantly lower than the “clearly outstanding” ratings of my glory years, even though I have not become a poorer teacher since that time. Competence is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholders change.

Horror stories abound. A high school science teacher who had won national recognition for having his students use telescopes and higher mathematics to determine the sizes of heavenly bodies was once denied his merit-pay bonus, in part because he failed to provide sponge activities at the beginning of his classes. A teacher of the deaf lost out because of a poor evaluation by an administrator who could not understand American Sign Language. A science teacher who later left teaching to become an engineer and now has several patents to his credit received a dismal evaluation from an ex-coach turned principal who had no idea what the science teacher was talking about. My poorest appraisal in recent years came from a monolingual speaker of English who observed me teaching a Spanish reading class in which neither my students nor I spoke any English.

No matter how well you teach, and no matter how well the students learn, if the administrator who appraises you cannot understand the lesson, you are likely to score poorly.

The moral of the story is, no matter how well you teach, and no matter how well the students learn, if the administrator who appraises you cannot understand the lesson, you are likely to score poorly.

Of course, the career ladder was no picnic for administrators. They were asked to decide, based on half-hour observations, sometimes in areas in which they had no training or expertise, whether teachers would gain or lose bonuses of from $1,000 to $3,500. When that much money is involved, there are bound to be hard feelings. Then there were those pesky appeals to higher authority and threats of lawsuits.

It is certain that good teachers deserve more money, and bad teachers deserve to be removed. In Texas, we discovered that it is not so easy to make those decisions. Let us hope that this round of merit-pay innovators finds a better way.

Jerry Jesness is a public school teacher living in Harlingen, Texas. He writes frequently on educational issues.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2001 edition of Education Week as Teacher Merit Pay


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