In education, money can buy many crucial items needed for student success: lower student-to-teacher ratios, support services for at-risk kids, extracurricular programs, classroom resources, computers, renovated facilities -- just to name a few. However, money cannot buy better education when it comes in the form of a bribe to teachers with a singular directive: jack up your students' standardized test scores.
I earned $39,000 in the 2003-2004 school year teaching fourth grade in the Bronx -- I could have used a few more bucks in my paycheck. If the merit pay carrot had been dangled in front of me, promising more money in exchange for "higher student achievement on tests," I would have gone for it, along with every other teacher in my school. Creative lesson plans would have gone out the window in order to focus solely on increasing the multiple choice scores. Our voiceless, uniformly poor students would have been further shortchanged within a system that puts line graphs on pedestals and leaves an unconscionable number of children behind.
Merit pay seems logical on the surface -- indeed, good teachers deserve to be rewarded -- but it is in fact based on a hijacked concept of merit. A deep distrust of teachers is inherent in its conception. The message is: "You're not doing the best you can, so we're going to sweeten the deal for you." This competitive performance pay incentive comes from the business sphere, but what works in business does not necessarily translate to education. Business, at its core, is about moving units and getting numbers; education, rather, is a wholly human institution based on developing and empowering people.
By and large, teachers enter their honorable profession because they want to stimulate and work with young people; they pour their hearts into the classroom not because of pay incentives, but because they are passionate about their important work. Tragically, teacher merit pay for higher test scores diverts teachers' time and attention from where it should be -- their students -- to incomprehensive, politically spun standardized tests.
America desperately needs to attract a new generation of passionate, well-trained teachers. Merit pay for higher test scores is not a way to do this, but here are three winning solutions:
#1: FORGIVE STUDENT LOANS. So many excellent would-be teachers choose higher-earning professions after college because they are saddled with student loan debt. This cannot be underestimated.
#2: RAISE ALL TEACHER SALARIES. America is an extraordinarily rich country, and it can find the money to pay competitive salaries to teachers, public servants who are on the frontlines, strengthening America's future generations.
#3: PROVIDE MORE WAYS TO GET INVOLVED. Offer merit pay for actually doing more. Expand opportunities for community outreach work and leading extracurricular activities.
The achievement merit pay camp has many politically formidable supporters, including Michael Bloomberg, Senator Barack Obama, and House Education Committee Chairman George Miller. These men have cast themselves as reformers of No Child Left Behind's draconian mandates, but their so-called solution will only further abet the poisonous culture of high-stakes testing. If they get their way, test scores will doubtlessly go up, but students' retained knowledge will likely plummet, and we will see a spike in cheating scandals. Schools will continue to be unwelcoming places, and drop-out rates and widespread disenfranchisement will persist.
Dan Brown is a writer and teacher in New York City. His memoir of his first year teaching, The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle, is being released this month by Arcade Publishing.