Home » Uncategorized » A Reply to Mariam (part 1) – A Look at Merit Pay

A Reply to Mariam (part 1) – A Look at Merit Pay


So first I want to say that I have the best best friend. She doesn’t only support my work and journey through the field of education, but she engages with my work, challenges my thinking, and helps me grow as an educational activist. Oh and did I mention that she’s a total badass advocate herself? She’s totally going places.

With that said, here’s the first part (part 2 gets its own post) of very thoughtful comment I received from my best friend Mariam, on my post “My ‘Conversation’ with Michelle Rhee”:

Great points, Hannah! Very well-researched and well-written. I wish Michelle Rhee could read this because I would absolutely love to hear her comeback (if she had any, that is…).

Some food for thought below, regarding some questions I’ve mulled over. I would be very interested to read how you address them!

1) As far as teacher unions go, I do agree that teachers themselves are not the problem. Most teachers willingly choose this noble career path to make a difference in the lives of their students. However, as a student myself, I can easily tell you that I had my share of horrible teachers along with the incredible ones. Any student will likely tell you the same. Unfortunately, for some teaching has become the ‘stepping stone’ to a better career later on or a last choice option that they reluctantly had to accept. For these few (emphasis on the FEW, they are the absolute minority) unmotivated teachers, I’m not sure if ‘helping’ them out will honestly benefit students. Why? Because these teachers may become comfortable knowing that they cannot be fired and thus, they may not heed the constructive criticism a passionate teacher would otherwise take into account. However, that being said, teacher unions largely protect the experienced and capable teachers who would do anything to fight for their students. How do we ensure that teacher unions remain intact such that the aforementioned experienced and caring teachers are properly compensated, while those who are clearly unmotivated and careless are removed from teaching altogether?

There are few (again, emphasis on the FEW) teachers out there in classrooms who are unequipped with the skillset and the nurturing mindset to teach… and these individuals do not deserve to be teaching in a classroom in the first place. (Michelle Rhee, based on her TFA stint, is exactly the type of teacher that should NOT be put into a classroom by any means. I don’t want to help ‘teachers’ like Rhee; they should be fired on the spot.)

Hey buddy!

I hope she read this… but something tells me she didn’t and even if she did, I doubt she’d reply. No one’s got time to reply to a little college student if they’re too busy raising money to destroy public education, right?

Anyway, I really appreciate your comment and I hope my response covers all your questions. If I’m missing anything or if you have any more questions, of course feel free to let me know!

Let’s start at the top with your first question about teacher unions protecting unmotivated, careless teachers.

I completely understand where you’re coming from (having been to the same high school with you). There are a few teachers out there who enter the field reluctantly (or with ulterior motives… cough cough Teach for America recruits) and don’t actually want to be teachers, teachers who abuse and commit unmentionable offenses against students, and teachers who engage in illegal activity with students. These teachers are a disgrace to the teaching profession and I don’t think the other dedicated and passionate teachers in a teachers’ union want to associate themselves with such “teachers”.

Now, there is a difference between teachers who enter the profession unmotivated, and teachers who become unmotivated and feel defeated by the destruction of their profession through high-stakes testing and budget cuts (and now privatization and personal attacks from billionaires who’ve never stepped into a classroom). But it’s hard to distinguish them.

But before I go into my proposal of what we should do about this predicament, I want to go back to something you said in your comment about properly compensating teachers who do their job. Currently, we have something in place that tries to do this.

Merit Pay

Merit pay is a product of education reform and it basically gives higher salaries to effective teachers, essentially using incentive to motivate teachers.

This sounds like a great idea right? Incentive is a great motivator, and who wouldn’t want to be rewarded for doing a good job?

Let’s start by defining an “effective teacher”. Here is a great definition from one of my favorite articles on merit pay:

Effective teachers challenge students to pursue activities they never thought they could do—or would be interested in. Effective teachers stimulate their students’ natural curiosity about the world. Effective teachers develop free-thinking, inquisitive minds, eager and able to learn for themselves. Effective teachers inspire kids to succeed in life—to believe that they can succeed in life, and to be prepared to succeed in life.

So does merit pay actually reward effective teachers? The answer is no.

If you go to the article and find the paragraph I quoted above, you’ll see that the last sentence, is the simplest yet perhaps the most powerful of all:

Effective teachers don’t just cram kids’ brains full of information.

The problem with merit pay (as is the problem with most education “reforms”) is that although it has good intentions, it is poorly implemented and has unexpected counterproductive consequences. Merit pay narrowly assumes causation between teacher performance and test scores, and it ignores the many other factors that require attention in order to holistically assess a teacher. Sometimes teachers are evaluated based on the test scores of students that aren’t even theirs! This is an entirely unfair process that consequently quantifies and de-professionalizes the teaching profession and forces teachers to teach to the test. It sends a terrible message that teachers are only as good as the test scores they can produce. Teachers then feel even more disrespected and unmotivated. They also can’t do much about it because they’re trapped in a lose-lose situation.

And so I ask… how can we compensate teachers who do their job, if we don’t let them do it? 

Before any judgments can be made on teachers, we need to bring respect and autonomy back into the teaching profession. We can do this through a variety of ways, starting with eliminating high-stakes testing and merit pay. We can then begin to develop an equitable evaluation system that encourages growth and involves student voice, student work, and teacher collaboration. This cannot be dictated by a few people in power (merit pay was the ingenious idea of a select few including Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates). Collaboration is key to create a truly democratic education. It’s time for politicians and bankers and billionaires and corporate reformers to step aside and for the voices they’ve silenced to speak up once again.

I also want to add as a side note that I don’t think we can buy a teacher’s respect. Yes, pay is important, and teachers should be paid more in general, but if we want to ever get to that point we need to tackle systemic attitudes and frameworks that attack and look down on teachers. We should value teachers the way we value doctors and lawyers and let them do their job.

Now, going back to your point about the “teachers” in our education system. I first want to point out that you yourself are a student, and that your voice is valuable and should be heard. Can your test score really indicate that your teacher is doing a poor job? No, you can tell a lot more about your teacher than your test score can, right?

Currently, student input is not valued when it comes to evaluating teachers and I want that to change. If more administrators listened to students about “teachers” working in their schools and worked with teachers union to investigate further and come to a fair and sensible conclusion, we wouldn’t have “teachers” that stay in schools and threaten the well-being and safety of students. So first we need to work on implementing FAIR methods of teacher evaluation that are fully collaborated on, that will justly distinguish teachers from a few “teachers”.

I think unions right now are more adamant about protecting their teachers because their profession is being completely disrespected by corporate reformers and their jobs are being threatened by very unfair and incomplete methods (if you can even call it a method) of evaluation. Once we revolutionize the system in which these teachers teach, and we actually let them teach and then evaluate them holistically (once again incorporating student voice and teacher collaboration/peer evaluation… I really cannot stress this enough), then unions can work on refusing job protection to teachers who simply are not teachers and are not willing to improve themselves. Together we can foster a force of revitalized, passionate, and committed educators.



  1. […] Here’s my response to the second part of Mariam’s comment. You can find part 1 here. […]

  2. […] A Reply to Mariam (part 1) – A Look at Merit Pay (inspireducation.wordpress.com) […]

  3. […] The first step is to invest in building a more equitable method of teacher evaluation. Something that is much more holistic, well-rounded. Something that encourages growth, gives constructive advice for improvement, and involves both student voice (project portfolios, class evals) and teacher collaboration (peer evals, third-party educator observations). (This email is getting long so you can look at my ideas more in-depth here and here. […]

  4. The other unintended consequence of merit pay is that is discourages teachers from working in places with high populations of poor students and English Language learners who don’t tend to score as well on standardized tests.
    I think you make an interesting point about student evaluations-but I can’t help feeling that teenagers are too capricious to take them seriously. Whether or not they love or hate you varies not only from year to year, but also from class to class, I’m not sure how useful that feedback would be. Also, having limited academic experience, and actually, where they are developmentally they’re not qualified to evaluate teachers. I worry about the way that might shift the power dynamic between teachers and students, and I just don’t think that would be a positive change. I shudder to think about 16 years who are pissed off at having to write an essay, having an impact on whether or not their teacher will be rehired. Honestly, I think it’s disingenuous to pretend that the classroom is a democracy, teachers have to have a different relationship to students than their friend.

    I do find it really useful to request feedback about assignments and what students have learned that quarter, however, I never ask them to comment on me or my teaching style. I use their feedback to change how I do assignments or to figure out what works and what doesn’t. I think it’s important for students to know that you are listening to them. But——-I don’t know. It comes down to being one adult in a roomful of kids/young adults who have good and bad days. Somehow has to be able to maintain the integrity of the learning environment.

    • Hannah says:

      I definitely understand where you’re coming from and you do make a very good point. I suggested student feedback because I value student voice (glad to know that you that you as a teacher understand that it’s important for students to know their teachers listen to them) and because this was how my teachers were partly (key word) evaluated. I think many other factors have to be taken into account but student voice is important.

      I was lucky enough to attend a high school where there were no standardized tests. Most teachers were professionals, experienced, and experts on education. Teacher performance was assessed partly through peer evaluations and observations from other teachers. At the end of every semester as well as in the middle of the semester, students were also able to give the teacher feedback through surveys that asked students to answer questions about what they liked about the class, how it could be improved, what worked best for them… but also whether they felt challenged, whether they felt like the teacher was organized, whether they felt like the teacher was fair and open, etc… The results of these surveys were given to administrators and teachers and used to help the teacher improve, rather than to punish the teacher. If my high school suddenly started judging its teachers based on the scores of their students (and the only scores we really had were our SAT/ACT scores), I think the teachers would have a giant revolt.

      If I were a teacher on the receiving end of this feedback, I would come up with ways I could make myself more available for students or improve curriculum to suit different learning needs and styles. Students can give feedback on assignments and what they learned (i.e. what worked and what didn’t, like you said), but I think they should also be allowed to voice how they felt in the class.

      Perhaps, however, the feedback given to teachers from students in the middle of the semester should be kept only between teachers and students. Teachers can even create these student surveys themselves. Or there can be honest class discussions about this. My respect level for a teacher would skyrocket if they stood in front of a class, initiating a conversation about how they and their students can work together to build a more productive learning community. This opens more communication between students and teachers. Students can speak to teachers about what they liked, what they didn’t like. Teachers can do the same as well. Both parties can work together to come up with solutions that both students and teachers have to implement.

      You’re right, one really pissed off kid who got frustrated with an assignment could jeopardize a teacher’s job. So student surveys aren’t to be used as the ultimate determining factor of whether a teacher keeps his or her job, of course. Of course, teachers know better than anyone about teaching and therefore, that assessment should a equally strong component of teacher evaluation, but students also experience the teaching, so their voice and the work they produce should also be looked at. [Also, I think we can both agree that no one except those who actually are in the classroom everyday (teachers and students) get to play a part in evaluating teachers.]

      Furthermore, every serious issue brought to light by students should also be investigated thoroughly. Transparency is important and if a child is getting seriously harmed in or out of class by a teacher, it should be dealt with accordingly. A system that values student voice helps this happen.

      Finally, I think it’s also really effective to have a double-sided “rules and expectations” discussion at the beginning of the year. This is where teachers set reasonable expectations and rules for their students, but students also get the chance to give teachers reasonable expectations and rules. What are your thoughts on this?

      Thanks again for your comment!

      • Well the way teacher evaluations work is that you are evaluated by the admin-they offer feedback and recommend whether or not you get rehired. They visit a few times a year, both formally and informally. Parent feedback and how many kids you send to the office also play a role. Would I rather have a master teacher and an educational expert evaluate me or a student? Id go with my admin. when you are evaluated by an expert( and I don’t mean someone who taught for three years and then became a principal) you learn a lot through the process.
        I get what you are saying about evaluations but I think you may be seriously overestimating the emotional maturity of high school students. If they sense a power vacuum they will manipulate it. For example, if they sense that a teacher has lost the support of the admin or other teachers, they will make that teachers’ life hell.
        I have friends who are college professors that do not read their evals Because their under grads say horrible things- sure there are kids that would take them seriously but many would not.

        I guess what I am saying is that I think there is a huge difference between getting feedback on assignments or getting feedback on what they think of you as a person. I mean, they’ll say things anyway, if you’re being unfair they’ll tell you. Because of this, i dont think the survey process has to be formal, sometimes I’ll just ask.
        Because I teach high school- I don’t have a big rules discussion at the beginning of the year. There’s the usual rules about being respectful, not using phones etc. then I state reasonable preferences. Then I talk to kids individually as stuff comes up. I think making too many rules just gives kids ideas and makes them want to rebel.
        This works for me and my style but may not work for others.
        The thing is, I think kids do have a voice in that they have choices to make within their school day. It may seem that i get to evaulate their work, but then again, I went to seven years of post secondary school to be qualified to do so. If they make the choice not to write a paper, how can they comment on how well I taught it? If they don’t bring their book to class and are tardy, who are they to comment on how organized I am? Again, it’s not that I don’t care about their emotional well being, I just don’t think they should have a role in my formal evaluation.

  5. Hannah says:

    Yes, I agree admin input is important (When I say teacher input, I really mean any teachers with experience and who can offer the best professional development). I think it’s also important for teachers teaching the same subject to collaborate with one another on lesson ideas and observe one another in the classroom. I think teachers who teach the same subject understand each other best.

    I do see how student surveys would be a problem, which is why they should be taken with a grain of salt. I know I have the experience of being in a class where I really admired the teacher but my peers, and even some of my friends did not. And many didn’t take the survey that seriously. Maybe having a conversation with students before about thinking carefully about the job of a teacher and what many of them would do if they were in the teacher’s shoes? This also teaches compassion and consideration. But perhaps you are right… the kind of power dynamic shifts that student surveys might bring about is concerning, which is why it might be best if they are more informal and solely for the teacher to improve. However, I do still think that there needs to be a degree of transparency where a student’s voice on very serious issues will should be brought up to administration and will be honored. Do you feel there should be a formal place for students to express this?

    Once again, thank you for voicing your thoughts on this matter. It’s nice to get a teacher’s opinion!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: