To the Editor:
Algebra teachers know that mandating the subject at a particular grade level raises failure rates, as a recent study of Chicago high school students has confirmed (“Algebra-for-All Policy Found to Raise Rates of Failure in Chicago,” March 11, 2009). What if performance pay for teachers were added to the equation? The combination could prove detrimental for both students and teachers.
Math is a cumulative subject, and students build upon what they have already learned. Each comes into an algebra class with unique qualifications often shaped by parents, previous teachers, and peers. Add to this a shortage of higher-level math teachers. When policymakers push unprepared students into algebra, both students and teachers therefore may fail. That could translate into a punitive pay policy.
During the 1980s, I taught algebra at a selective private girls’ school where all students were expected to succeed in a rigorous 7th grade prealgebra course that prepared them well for 8th grade Algebra 1.
I transferred to Los Angeles’ first public magnet school in 1989, partly for the 50 percent pay raise. Our 7th to 12th grade students were bused in from all over the city, from numerous elementary schools and backgrounds. Many required remedial math before taking prealgebra, a rigorous course that covered such topics as integers, equations, graphing, geometry, and problem-solving.
Prepared students in grades 8, 9, and 10 came together in my Algebra 1 classes and were mostly successful, scoring well on the state algebra exam. I also taught remedial math to 10th to 12th graders whose attention spans and skills levels were low—with limited success. Would I have qualified for merit pay?
If Algebra 1 classes are filled with students of widely diverse math abilities, preparation, and attitudes, it is difficult for teachers to cover topics in the proper sequence and depth for effective cumulative learning. Teachers may lower expectations lest confused students become disruptive; struggling students may hold back higher achievers who become bored. Imagine factoring in performance pay for those algebra teachers. Who would benefit from such a policy?
Betty Raskoff Kazmin
A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 2009 edition of Education Week as Algebra, Performance Pay: A Bad Mix of Policies?