Elementary Educator Asks: Does Merit Pay Turn Kids into Zombies? | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Tap, tap, tap---tap, tap--tap. I'm sending a signal from down here in the muck, down here where the boogers are hard and the shoelaces are eternally untied. HELLO up there? In the 80's words of Def Leopard, "Is anybody out there? Is anybody there?" Call me crazy, but how come I don't see or hear serious discussion about what's going to happen to elementary school students and teachers when teacher evaluation is tied to test scores?

"We're going to pay good teachers more; hold the bad ones accountable." I'm sure you've heard the same thing from the Obama administration. And right from http://www.barackobama.com: "We will recruit an army of new teachers and develop innovative ways to reward teachers who are doing a great job, and we will reform No Child Left Behind so that we are supporting schools that need improvement, rather than punishing them."

So, okay. What happens when Obama's vision here becomes law? And how exactly do they plan to assess all this improvement they expect to see? With budgets the way they are, I can only infer that they'll fall back on standardized tests. And the teacher reward? Tied directly to scores.

I'm not saying that the negative impact of merit pay will be any greater in the elementary grades. All teachers on all levels play a crucial part in a student's development. However, I'm sorry to bring up an old, but very true saying: "First impressions last forever." The pressure to perform will squeeze the life out of the innocence of grade school and crush the curiosity that attracted them there in the first place, students and teachers alike.

The Dominoes Fall and the Zombies Rise

Domino #1: Most elementary standardized tests assess math, reading, and writing. When merit pay is squished into the system, classrooms around the country will morph into a zombie-land of reading, writing, and math (Some already have.) I must read. I must write. I must count. I must read. I must count. I must . . . well, you get the point. This isn't a bad thing, right? Right. BUT, all of this reading and writing and math will be taught solely for the purpose of passing a test. Big money will be spent of prep materials and programs and kids will begin to believe that they are in school to pass a test. Not learning to live life to the fullest. Not learning to be curious or to think. Not learning to learn.

Domino #1 falls and hits Domino #2: There goes science, social studies, technology and any other kind of free-thinking non-test taking creative endeavors. You gotta make room for test prep, more room than ever since merit pay or loss of job is in sight. And then what happens to our country? The art of teaching will disappear and clone teachers will spew out soulless, robotic test takers.

Domino #2 falls and hits Domino #3: While the zombie test takers move across grade levels their level of zombieness will increase and all creativity as we know it will cease to exist. Just like their dead, rotting flesh. That's not good. In a recent Newsweek article: "The Creativity Crisis", a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 "leadership competency" of the future. The article guessed that video games and the lack of creative development in school are two machetes slashing at the heart of creativity. With merit pay in place, creativity hasn't got chance to make a comeback.

Down, down, and down for the count.

Let me remind you that this domino effect will go as low as Pre-K. Everyone's got to be evaluated. It's only fair. I know, their kids can't read. How do you give a standardized test to a kindergartner? What about art, music, and library? Those teachers need to be evaluated too. Speech? Gym? I can go all day. But wait, here's an even larger question. How much money will it take to test, monitor, and score every grade level and special area? That's a lot of money and a lot of time to prepare, practice, and actually take the test.

Is it worth the money? I don't think so. If you want true educational reform you put your money into heavy professional development, my friends. In the words of author, Barry Lane, "You don't fatten a pig by weighing it." I'm not talking about a six-hour workshop. I'm talking about intense national programs like The National Writing Project and The National Science Teacher Association; I'm talking about learning from the best. Invite authors, master teachers and educational thinkers to inspire the teaching population; create learning communities and think tanks within school districts that include teachers, parents, and kids. Just because we teach eight-year-olds doesn't mean we can't sit around and talk theory and philosophy.

So let's assess kids (the ones with with a pulse) instead.

We are pushed as teachers to create well-balanced citizens who will contribute to society. We are encouraged to instill a sense of confidence in our students who will some day harness a career in a field of their choice. We are tending a human garden, not screwing parts together. We are indeed teaching human beings. Human beings have many needs: educational, social, emotional, physiological, and . . . dare I say, creative. Can you test resourcefulness in thirty minutes? Leadership? Hard work? Art? Collaboration? Can you assess being a human? Can you assess the fact that a teacher raised the self-esteem of a student?

What pressures are leaning on you as merit pay leaks into the lower grade levels? Are there ways to do it without a high stakes test?

Comments (41)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

That is the proper way to do it. Sounds like a great place to work. Thanks for sharing.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.


"Duncan's much-touted RTTT encouragement of bonus payments to "good" teachers--to spur both teacher development and higher student test scores--had "no significant impact on student achievement or teacher retention" in Chicago, according to Mathematica Policy Research, a leading firm in assessing performance of social programs. (A study of a New York City merit-pay program also showed little effect on student performance.)

W. Andrew Stephenson's picture


You are right that is has already happened. However, my point is that merit pay will only make it worse and will drive the zombie population up by assessing every single teacher all the way down to Pre-K. I've been giving a state test for ten years now, but I've never been evaluated on the results.

Yes, there are ways to evaluate teachers. Don't get me wrong; I'm not blind to the fact that there are teachers out there who are practically stealing a paycheck. I think merit pay can be executed in a somewhat proper manner. Take, for example, the Portland Education Association in Maine. They have been working under a Professional Learning Based Salary System (PLBSS). When teachers participate in some sort of professional development, they can increase their pay. "Our salary system is based on the statement that the best indicator of student learning is teacher learning," says Gary Vines, a guidance counselor in the district who played a crucial role in establishing the merit pay system. Helena, Montana adopted a similar merit pay program with career development plans, professional service commitments, and positive evaluations being the determining factors for pay increases. And teachers don't even have to follow the merit pay scale. It's a personal choice. There are ways to increase teacher performance without hanging the invalid threat of a standardized test over their heads.

Thanks for the posts.



Thanks for your article. I was attracted to your blog because it focuses on Elementary Education, as I teach 4th grade in Brooklyn, NY at an all-boys charter school called Excellence Boys (www.excellenceboys.org).

Teaching in an urban environment, I think, demands that teachers be held accountable to the results they achieve with their children. Assessment score differences between children of low-income communities and communities primarily of color speak make it clear that the achievement gap is real, particularly with regard to English Language Arts. What kind of teacher evaluation system would you propose that could guarantee teacher investment in their children's education? I'm not trying to blame the teachers, because I am one searching for solutions. I understand your dislike of merit pay based on its ability to narrow the curriculum in undesirable ways, but how do we assess the real impact that Teacher A has on children vs. Teacher B? If Teacher B is an apathetic teacher, there should be some way to either (1) improve that teacher, or (2) dismiss that teacher.

So far, you've suggested pay based on a professional learning development model, which seems reasonable, but I think it assumes too much about teacher investment. You stated it very clearly: teachers that care will take part, increasing their pay and pushing them from "good to great," but that doesn't seem to address the other end of the spectrum, with teachers just collecting a paycheck and letting children slide through a year in their class. Unfortunately, while the school I work at is wonderful in its ability to attract the most motivated teachers I've ever met, the apathetic type of teacher seems too common in the city where I work. Thoughts?

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.


Man, that's a tough one. We all know the apathetic teachers in our schools. It's not hard to miss them. However, they are in all professions. Let's think about why your school hires and attracts motivated teachers. Is it the pay? The environment? The kids? I'm all for paying teachers more to work in the most needed areas. But how do you do that? Tough question. The best teachers are needed in those areas. How do you get them there? Unfortunately, a one answer cure-all is not going to happen.

Another idea might be specializing elementary schools. Have teams of teachers working together, teaching different areas. The middle school does this in my district. Maybe by allowing teachers to focus on one area of instruction (I.E. Literacy, Science, Math, Social Studies--Maybe their favorite subject) will motivate them. Having that team feeling might cut down on apathetic behavior?

I'm not sure if finding a way to get rid of the bad ones is as important as finding a way to attract the good ones.

Great questions and thinking, Kelly. I look forward to more of your posts.


W. Andrew Stephenson's picture

Sorry Gaetan, perhaps I was confusing. This was Andrew writing the last post you responded to. I probably should have written the comment without quoting.

Now that the day's over, I thought I would try to respond to your questions. With regard to teacher motivation at my school, I have a few thoughts. First, my school is very well-positioned to be a lighthouse for the Brooklyn community. We have a clear mission: to prepare our young men (overwhelmingly African-American) to enter, succeed in, and graduate from college. Regardless of the the debate over single-sex education, the fact that we serve one of the populations of highest historical need in terms of academic achievement means that the people we hire really feel like they are doing their part to close the achievement gap. That's the idealistic piece.

Second, the places that our school chooses to use as primary sources of teachers carry a mantle of prestige. I am in my 3rd year of teaching, but I arrived at Excellence Boys through the selection process of Teach for America, to whom I was bound by contract for two years. Teach for America has great cache among the elite educational institutions in the United States: last year, there were about 40,000 applications for about 5,000 positions, yielding a 12% acceptance rate, matching or beating that of many top graduate programs. The people that I work with are incredibly talented folks who could have easily chosen I-banking, law school, and so forth, but they didn't, and they seem happy to devote their time to our extended day and school year.

Third, our network of schools (Uncommon Schools, www.uncommonschools.org) pays their teachers more than their union counterparts of equivalent experience and certification. I put this reason third for a reason: I'm pretty sure, as you are, that teacher pay, while it could be better, is not the primary reason that teachers stay in their profession.

I fundamentally agree with you that merit pay systems fail to hit the right notes. However, schools in urban areas that can offer a "whole package" seem to be getting it done. Right now, those seem to be the charter schools in New York City. While I fear that many people see charter schools as being too focused on data-driven instruction and not on the whole child, we're really just trying to make sure that our students have a fair shot at the college playing field.

Thanks for your posts; I look forward to coming back in the future to read your thoughts.

Mary Rodriguez's picture

As a second year teacher who is eager to educate and who has seen my fair share of lousy teachers, I am not opposed to merit based pay IF (and this is a big if) they can find a fair and accurate way to judge that merit. As I am sure we can all agree, standardized test scores are not the way to go. I teach in an inner city school with a huge ELL population and as a result many of our students under-perform on the language portions of these tests. I have seen the zombie effect already take hold in an effort to correct this problem and I know that "teaching to the test" does our students a disservice. The most under-performing schools need the best teachers, but if merit-based pay is not handled delicately, quality teachers will flee from these schools.

I believe in the American ideal that if you work hard, do a good job, you should be compensated accordingly. However, our government is lazy. It would take too much time, money, and effort to assess teachers (and students) on a variety performances measures and so they try to standardize everything. Teachers hands our tied as our schools are run like factories, and yet we get the blame for the end result of students who cannot think for themselves.

Cheryl Nunn's picture

I have been waiting for these big raises. As a kindergarten teacher we are not tied to taks test (Texas), but we have TPRI, M-Clas, Rapid assessments, and then the standard weekly assessments. We are so assessed, that there is not any real teaching going on. You know the stuff where kinders learn social skills for the higher grades or 100 other things that five year olds need to move on through the grades, lunch manners, nose blowing and other socially acceptable manners. Kindergarten is now what 1st grade used to be.

We need to stop and think what kind of stress we are putting on these little ones. They still miss mommy and most still need their naps. These kiddos are expected to go all day without rest and are expected to do the work that first and second graders are now doing.

There is not enough money or time in the day to get everything taught that Texas now wants from kindergarten. Forget the merit raise based on producing test related kindergarten, let's get the social skills down that they need to succeed as well. I am not saying they can't learn to read or add and subtract, but making it a pressure point, when these kiddo's need socialization as well is expecting to much of five year olds.

Monica's picture

I agree. Teachers should be assessed, but in action. We should be judged on how we interact with the students, the engaging lessons we develop and implement, and how we reflect and communicate with our students and colleagues. Data does NOT prove anything. What happens when all of the failing schools in the inner city never improve their test scores? Those teachers will constantly NOT be considered good teachers because their students are being asked to perform highly on the same test with other students in other districts who have had different experiences and a different homelife. I don't understand how people don't realize these test scores are USELESSS!! No one will have common sense in 10 years, but I guarantee they can figure out how to pass a test! This is so ridiculous, maybe business people need to stop trying to get involved and think they know whats best and let teachers (the ones who actually experience these students first hand and educational background is on how to work with students) make these types of decisions. Its about time the teachers started being listened too. We are the ones who do the job on a day to day basis, Not Obama and his staff. I couldn't go and tell the president what to do so maybe they should stop trying to tell us.

Rebecca Craig's picture

This has been a topic of discussion in my home and community. I agree that there are teachers in our school that are not performing as well as high performing teachers, but basing pay on test scores seems unreliable.
Our school recently bought a hand held testing program that each teacher will use to assess each child three times a year. As a Kindergarten teacher I will spend about 35 minutes per child completing these assessments. That's over 13 hours of instruction that my students will lose. These assessments are not replacing current assessments, but will be added on top of our current assessments. They are also not teaching me anything that I don't already know about my students. What this program does do is download the information to a website and track student progress.
I couldn't help but ask myself if this is where education is heading. Will I be spending more time assessing my children that teaching them? I feel that I can learn just as much, if not more, about my students and increase their self esteem and love of learning by reading with them.

Yasmin Spain's picture
Yasmin Spain
3rd grade teacher from Newark, NJ

I agree 100% that Merit Pay will turn children into Zombies. As an educator in an Urban district, I find that as they years go by the students are no longer interested in learning. There is no excitement in their eyes when they come to school. They are actually quite lazy and unmotivated. They are no longer bright light bulbs. I believe this is the fault of our government and the young parents who have no control over themselves, so how can we expect them to raise a child? We teach to a test which will only allow a child to learn or remember one way to solve a problem. If we don't teach skills how do we expect kids to ever learn how to think on a higher level or to be able to compete with other children across the globe? We are setting our kids up for failure and it is only becoming increasingly worse. So how and why should a teacher who has the test memorized be granted merit pay when we aren't sure if her teaching is genuine or rehearsed?

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