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Reader Comment on Performance Pay

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I had to excerpt this passionate comment on teacher performance pay. Rather than asking what its implications are for student achievement, this reader focused on what it means for teachers' personal and professional identities. This is an angle I'd never considered before - thank you, anonymous reader. You can read the full comment here.

Look at places where teachers have been lured into these plans with money. The experiment always begins with apprehension, a sort of reluctance. The policy wonks explain that this fear is because the teachers have been brainwashed by the unions and don’t understand the science at work. Perhaps. It is also possible that experienced professionals know in their gut when something just feels wrong, even if they can’t explain why.

But they participate anyway because the pull of the money is just so strong, the promise of some financial reward for years of hard work seems so right, and, in some cases, “leadership” has promised them that the results will be fair. Once the decision is made to participate, initial reluctance is replaced with a sense of excitement and teachers soon forget many of their worries. After all, teachers are human: Who could pass on a free lottery ticket, especially when you think you will win, especially when you think you will win because you deserve it.

But the morning after, teachers invariably wake up to regret and shame, at least when they know the outcome. They learn that teachers they know work hard did not get a reward. They see less deserving teachers rewarded. No one can explain why. The fairness of the experiment becomes less clear when they see who is left out and how the money is divided. Some winners become ashamed of the money they got and will not even admit to winning; some of the very people who don’t want bonuses published are the ones who got one. Other winners wonder secretly if they may actually be that much better than their peers; after all of those years of playing a supporting role, maybe they should have played the lead? How does that feel?

The losers feel duped. They review in their minds everything they thought they were doing right. They must, as the system is intended to do, start to question everything about what they do. What was working, what wasn’t? But in many of these experiments, they don’t get any feedback, no explanation, no guidelines for improvement, just a report card with a big red “F.” How does that feel?

And after the checks are cashed, the teachers are in the awful situation of having to admit that, despite everything they have ever believed about themselves, they may be doing what they do for the money. Not the kids. Not the community. Just for the money. At that point, they are stuck with the realization that they have been kidding themselves for 5, 10, or 20 years by saying they were in it because they cared about teaching and kids and learning. Even worse, in some places, teachers will have to reconcile that they choose to participate when their peers living nearby said “No, no thanks,” despite the money.

And then… the final twist. The teachers find out that real, objective researchers believe the results were statistically unsound or there was an error in the calculation or the analyses can’t be used to tell most good teachers from bad ones. Millions of dollars were rewarded, winners and losers chosen, and even the people in charge can’t say if the results were correct. The winners had no right to brag and the losers had no need to apologize. How does that feel then?
2 Comments

I know exactly who would get the merit pay-- and merit would have nothing to do with it. I've written about this before from a business world perspective-- and let me assure you that raises in the private sector often go to sycophants rather than successes.

No thanks.

Fascinating commentary.

I have an odd perspective, working in the city and living in a suburb. Watching my daughter's schools, with great teachers, small classes, always better run, in better condition, and with better opportunities for kids than in my relatively excellent city school, I can't help but notice there's no need for merit pay, vouchers, or whatever the "reformers" have up their sleeves this week.

I know a teacher who is blindingly incompetent but with great typing skills. One year, this teacher helped the principal with typing after school every day on a volunteer basis, and was named "Teacher of the Year," that June. That's the sort of teacher who would get merit pay for sure.

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