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

Gloria Brown's picture

I hear many people say, "Let's pay the good teachers more." Who decides who is a good teacher? Very difficult to do. So the easy way out is simply to base pay on test scores.

Janis Seminara's picture
Janis Seminara
Writer, Writing tutor

"Let me remind you that this domino effect will go as low as Pre-K." Oh it has! You are so right on with this article. We need more edutopians everywhere! Maybe create an Edutopia for parents, they need to understand and to see what is really going on. Thanks Gaetano!

InTechEd's picture

As a third grade teacher who is required to administer 37 days of district, state, and national assessments over a the course of one school year, I can only say thank you for such a clear picture of the consequences of testing, not teaching.

Kelly KJ's picture
Kelly KJ
Instructional Coach in Newport News, VA

I couldn't agree more, Gaetan! But I have to wonder...where has this NOT already happened. The Domino and Zombie effects you describe have been my reality since NCLB came into law. Creativity has already been lost in public schools. Solving this problem isn't really just about STOPPING the damage, but cleaning up the damage that has already been done and building structures to prevent further damage.
I disagree with Gloria...I think there are many ways we COULD assess good teaching and I think we MUST do so. Good teachers DO need to be encouraged to stay in the profession and bad teachers DO need to be weeded out. But you are right that test scores aren't the answer. It would involve real professional discussions and think tanks like the ones Gaetan describes. It also means principals and others in charge must get out of offices and stop looking at metrics and really get into the classrooms and watch teachers and students in action.

jennifer van natta's picture

My daughers (1st and 4th) attend Ohlone Elementary in Palo Alto CA. No grades, no homework, mixed grades, big farm, the WHOLE child. They love it and I love it. AND, my oldest daughter has been abpve 95% in all categories of STAR tests for 2 years. I want it all! The farm and no homework and the focus onthe whole child doesn't mean much if she isn't being taught or is not retaining the basic curriculum. But, Ohlone Elementary proves that kids can have high test scores and a happy, creative, sophisticated education.

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


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.

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

A great blog and great comments! All too often, it seems that the negativity (deserved often) leads to resignation. There ARE better options, some mentioned here. Let's work together to "get it all" for all students. Let's keep the blogs positive and supportive. Let's keep the learning communities engaged scenic not formally organized within school systems and beyond. Let's push administrators and school boards to do the right things - not do the short payback things only. Again, the successful and appropriate programs exist; let's fight for them instead of giving up.

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

Right on, John. It's about inspiring people to rise up. Not beating them down.

Mike Bolen's picture

I see a great sea of automaton students, especially when teachers are forced to teach in a particular way due to working in a low performing school, or held so accountable that they fear creativity. Education seems to be at a crossroads, accountability vs. teachability. Unfortunately, the "powers that be" in education as of late all seem to be ex businessmen, not educators. Perhaps it would be best if the businessmen would don the teacher robe, and start experiencing the other end of the spectrum. I am sure it would be enlightening.

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