Teaching Profession Opinion

Is What’s Good for CEOs Good for Teachers?

By Deborah Meier — October 15, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Let’s explore, one by one, the separate elements of the federal education agenda, Diane. Are they based on reason and evidence or ignorance and irrationality? (I could have asked myself the same thing about our differences regarding the trade-offs and risks involved in a national curriculum.)

Merit pay is high on the list of the new business-oriented reformers and naturally difficult for unions to swallow. For unions, the big issues are above all aimed at providing employees with a fair system that won’t place them at the mercy of their bosses when it comes to the basics of the job. It’s obviously of less concern to people entering the field for a short period. (Ditto for retirement, seniority, maternity leave, etc.—all of which are safeguards of concern, mostly, for those in for a lifetime career.)

Merit pay involves a set of related issues of concern to me. I speak to this as a former teacher, trade unionist, parent activist, and principal. On most of these we agree, Diane, even though they have never been directly connected, as they have for me, to “self-interest.”

In each of these roles, I was glad that teachers’ pay benefits and seniority rights were not at stake in the disagreements we might have. I could always see how dangerous it might be if powerful parents, principals, community members, or union “bosses” were in a position to annually decide how much my own child’s teacher was worth paying. Oddly enough—am I right, Diane?—most of the reforms being threatened preceded unionization of schools and exist in states in which there are no labor-management contracts. They came into existence to protect teachers from the political pressures that affected their jobs and their profession. They mirror the protections of most public employment. Union power helped to make these safeguards and benefits more secure, but their history—as you have documented, Diane—has other roots.

I’m reinforced in my attachment to these by my own personal experience and that of two of my teaching offspring! Two out of two have at some point in their teaching lives been fired, and one was blackballed. And, in both cases it was related to out-of-class behaviors: remarks made at public meetings and union activity.

But my critique of merit pay rests also on other prejudices of mine. First of all, I think schools need to be highly collegial settings and any system of financial (or other) rewards creates a setting that makes this harder, not easier to achieve. And, believe me, it’s hard enough as it is. That’s one reason that in NYC, the United Federation of Teachers agreed to an experiment only if the staff had the right to decide on how to spread the resulting bonus money.

Secondly, I believe that schools work best when we can help young people see that the highest goal of learning is not some external reward, but the enormous satisfaction of learning, the “power of their ideas” (the title of my first book), backed by knowledge. They come to us largely untainted by a system of rewards for the most complex learning they will encounter—the knowledge and reasoning that leads them to language competence, an enormous vocabulary even under the worst of circumstances, the names and faces of thousands of objects and people, the “rules” of the game for any number of ordinary situations. They can “read” people’s moods and make sensible predictions based on their theories, as they can with hundreds upon hundreds of other theories that apply to their daily lives. Learning is unstoppable—the trick is how to turn it to some “subject matter” that they don’t encounter naturally, or which they don’t uncover in its fuller complexity naturally. The aims of school—whatever they may be—depend on our keeping that drive alive, nourishing it, and deliberately doing as little as possible to undermine it. Ditto for teaching.

Thirdly, there is simply NO evidence on its behalf in public or private employment, and most previous attempts at this have been abandoned for that reason. The “evidence” falls on the other side. In fact, there is evidence of a lot of danger. It corrupts. Whatever is used to decide who “merits more” will—as most high-stakes indicators do—undermine the indicator(s) chosen: Campbell’s law.

No better example of this has hit the headlines lately than what is known as the “C.E.O. compensation” problem. David Owen has written a startling and chock-full-of-lessons essay in the Oct. 12 New Yorker, “The Pay Problem.” I’ll be quoting from it in future weeks, so I hope our blogees get a copy of it. Have you read it, Diane?

To those reading us, I hope you will help me think about which of the above arguments are best or worst, and why you disagree—if you do.


P.S. Beware old-timers. I’ve just realized that the term “performance” assessment now refers to the paper-and-pencil test. As in a driver’s test—who would imagine calling the paper-and-pencil test a performance test??? We’re back to Alice in Wonderland where words can mean whatever we choose.

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