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

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

Dawn Miller's picture

I enjoyed reading this article! I am currently working in a school that is in school improvement due to low standardized test scores. We are being "forced" to focus on reading, math, and writing. Everything else is on the back burner or being "integrated". I could not agree more with the kid/zombie comparison. We are going to take any creativity and curiosity out of our children. We need to get back to basics fast because we are losing our free spirits!

Kathryn Flint's picture

The school system that I work for is currently piloting an evaluation system based on an improvement on test scores. This article presents several problems involved with merit based pay. Professional Learning Communities are needed within schools to increase teacher learning. This should be the basis of teachers' pay.

Jodi Goodman's picture
Jodi Goodman
K-1-2 multi age classroom teacher from Charlotte, NC

What a great read! Thanks so much for what you've posted. Another concern I have for merit based pay would be a complete abandonment (even more that what we're already experiencing) of our "low-achieving," high poverty schools with so many more challenges. The school I worked at in the last two years had very low test scores and many, many behavior challenges. I have wonderful and beautiful stories of success with these children that bring me to tears just thinking of them. A child who screamed at me to "shut the f*** up" on the first week of school invited me as the only other adult to his boy scout event. A second grade child who drew himself shooting guns and killing his family and myself the first half of the year would sit in my lap, stroke my face and tell me that if he had a mother, he wishes it would be me. These stories say much more about the hope and perseverance of these children than it ever could of me as a teacher, but the point is that these massive leaps of growth would never, show on any standardized tests.

This year, I am in a new area and I teach at a school of mostly upper-middle class children who all live relatively comfortable lives. I acknowledge that children face challenges from all walks of life, but I also acknowledge that the children I teach now come to school with their basic needs met, love in their hearts, and eager to learn. Our school currently has a "98%" proficiency rate in Reading and although we do employ many talented and dedicated teachers, these test scores are certainly not a direct reflection of our teacher's talent...myself included. These children lead happy, appropriate, supported lives with SO much parent involvement that they're set up to succeed. I can put in HALF the work at this school and know that my students will blow away any "standardized test."

I am young, single, without children and I love my job. But say for a moment, I wasn't those things. If I had the choice of teaching at a school where the children will most likely pass the tests with or without my deep dedication or never ending stress AND I would get paid MORE for those passing grades OR the choice of teaching somewhere that children had many more non-academic needs unmet, where I would put in more hours of emotional and professional stress and I wouldn't get paid as much as the aforementioned counterpart because the chances of my students "blowing away" any standardized test are much different? You do the math.

I agree that the answer is in Professional Development, good administration and professional communities, and educational preparation (college!). Sad to say, my undergrad degree was a breeze. Fortunately, I wanted to be a teacher but I knew many others in the program that didn't and the course work was such a joke that they continued on...and now they're teaches in our classrooms.

Steve Fouts's picture

I agree with tring to be positive, but the negativity being heard is from all of the frustration with NCLB. Is there really a teacher out there, at any level, that believes we can get a clear picture of what any kid knows by giving them a paper and pencil test. I find it hard to put any stock in an assessment that is given at the beginning of the school year, that covers material the students will see for the first time a few months later. We lose valuable instructional time preparing our students for these tests, that were voted into law by people who have never taught a single day in their lives.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Gaetan:

Interesting read. Your perspective from the elementary level is intriguing. As I understand it, NCLB demands that all states begin testing in the third grade. Since 2001, third through sixth grade have had their tests tied to teacher performance. What has changed?

Merit pay, bases part of the teacher bonus, above and beyond the base salary, on student test scores, while the other part of the bonus comes from teacher observations and evaluations. Both of these things are used in traditional non-teacher merit pay systems to determine good teachers from bad teachers. What has changed?

It is my understanding that dominoes fall two ways. Is not reading the basis for all learning? Is not mathematics the basis for problem solving. Why is it a bad thing to have students learn those? What else would you have students do that could have a more powerful influence on their educational career? Is there a reason that reading and math can't be fun and creative regardless of the third grade tests. The students I know, start out loving reading and math. It is precisely the drill and kill that you describe that makes them turn their backs on the basics. I don't see how the test has any thing to do with it, unless you are saying that creative, ingenious, and dedicated teachers are abandoning all they have learned and been trained to do to give students workbooks just because they want a bonus at the end of the year. I just don't see that happening.

Schools and teachers can always improve, but comparing schools to zombie factories is a bit much.

If you want to fix elementary schools, start by loosening up a bit on the "control". Go to any elementary school and you will see this: Making students stand in line, waiting for the line to be straight. Making students put their heads down until everyone is quiet. Making students walk down the halls with their heads down, bubble in their mouths, hands behind the back. Making students wait for permission to answer questions, wait for the teacher to tell them what to do, wait to learn... When students get to high school (if they make it that far) some have learned to play the game of control, while others outright rebel against it.

Although I respectfully disagree, I admire your passion and your metaphors. Keep them coming.

Ben Johnson

Beth Brannon's picture

Those of us who have been teaching for a while have already seen the mostly negative effects of more and more district, state and other testing for students so it stands to reason merit pay based on student test scores would only further strangle creativity and exploration in the classroom. The majority of educators don't mind some level of accountability for both teachers and students. It's positive to compare individual test scores from year to year, or to see where those students stand compared to national statistics. It's also positive for teachers to have standards that are assessed through observations, yearly evaluations and other objective means. The problem starts when teachers are assessed and given merit pay based on student test scores. It would be ludicrous for any other profession to have their pay based on the output of others; yet, this is precisely what merit pay does. Students vary SO widely in their innate abilities, past education experiences, parental involvement and home standards or attitudes regarding education, and a host of other factors. To expect that a teacher can start with a class, or classes, that begin the year with such varied readiness and skill and bring them all to a standardized level of acceptability for the teacher to receive an increase in pay is so obviously unfair and unreasonable one can't help but ask why it has even been considered. In addition, numerous studies have shown that merit pay has not changed current teacher behavior and performance, nor has it helped students. It would likely be very difficult and lengthy for studies to be conducted to compare individual students' growth in skill in a class where the teacher was deemed "worthy" of merit pay as compared to those in classes where the teacher wasn't. The writer here also makes a good point in stating student performance in areas like creativity, resourcefulness and people skills cannot even be measured accurately and objectively; and these are areas an educator affects every day. More research by those recommending merit pay would help them come up with other more successful ways to motivate teachers they see as lacking. In my experience most educators care greatly about student achievement and give way above and beyond what is required of them. Of course there teachers who lack good pedagogy or need more motivation. Individual administrators should be aware when this is the case and should be effectively addressing these situations so that students do not suffer. Sadly, this is often not done and these teachers are instead allowed to teach with substandard performance. It is my hope that those in leadership positions will take a fair and extensive look at the problems with merit pay before they even think about advocating for it.

Jennifer Sickels's picture
Jennifer Sickels
2nd Grade Teacher, ND

You know...I am going to Florida to interview for a teaching position the end of April. I just read that Florida passed legislation for merit pay in 2014. I do agree that some districts focus too much time and energy on "teaching to the test." But I think that if teachers teach well using a variety of hands on activities and brain research and make learning fun, that their students will learn. The accountability is needed. There are clear positives and negatives. I have heard of teachers who sit around reading the newspaper while others are working hard to create meaningful lessons. The last district I worked for required us to spend a lot of time doing daily assessments that would help them do better on the test. Just let me teach it using what I know works and my students will thrive!

Aimee's picture

I can agree with the point that there is a need to have some type of accountability for teachers, however, merit based pay is just not it. A standardized test score does not measure the counseling we do with our students, the self-esteem boosting we do on a day to day basis, and the genuine care we have for them. It does not measure the real life learning they are receiving in the classroom. Instead it will tell you how well my students are able to add, subtract, read, and understand. It is not assessing the "whole child." I think as merit based pay for teachers continues to take over you will see a drop in real world learning in the classroom and more teaching to the test. Real world learning is not measured by the test so instead of continuing to spend time doing those things that make children actually enjoy school and want to become lifelong learners, I would be forced to replace it with worksheets and tests. As numerous studies have shown, merit based pay makes very little difference in student achievement. As a teacher I am doing my all to help my students succeed already and a pay raise incentive would not affect that, but rather change my teaching strategy, and in my opinion make me become a less effective teacher.

Susan Foulks's picture

No offense but you have clearly never taught in an elementary setting. It's not about us having "control" as much as teaching them how to control themselves. In elementary, everything that is not taught at home must be taught at school. For most students, this is the first environment where they have had to work in a group setting and need to learn the basics of taking turns, being aware of and respecting others around them and understanding that they are not always going to get their way. Without the seemingly "excessive" structure, students would be lost and would have difficulty navigating this new environment. Little learning would take place. Obviously as they get older, such structure is not as necessary because they have learned what the expectations are in a public place.

byronandlyssajunocom - 427421's picture

I completely agree with this article. We don't pay doctors according to how healthy their patients are, we don't pay firefighters for how many fires are started, and teacher pay should not be determined by how a student feels on the particular day of testing. My daughter is 2 grade levels above in math, yet at times she gets lazy during timed tests and gives one answer for every question. If that test was chosen to determine pay, it would inaccurately reflect both teacher quality and student "achievement". Pay teachers based on things that research proves contributes to student achievement (continuing education, experience, mentoring, etc.). Additionally, research shows merit pay (and for teachers specifically) contributes to negative student outcomes. If it was effective in this field, it would warrent this discussion. Because research shows it not only doesn't work but has a negative impact makes it a bit ignorant of our society to even be having this conversation. Read "Drive" to find about research on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, and merit pay in particular. We have to come up with more "21st century" ways to "measure" student success, like employment after high school, pregnancy rates, crime rates, other things that actually matter in the world. Test scores are too inaccurate and flawed. The only people supporting them are backed by big corporations who want to make money. The money trail is enlightening...

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