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Democratic Candidates on Merit Pay: Teachers' Unions Have Nothing to Worry About


In last night's Democratic debate on CNN, the seven presidential candidates were asked whether they were in favor of the very controversial issue of merit pay for teachers, which is generally fiercely opposed by some of the Democrats' biggest supporters—the teachers' unions.

None of the candidates came out in favor of the kind of merit pay in which individual teachers are paid more based on their results in the classroom. Interestingly, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who is the only Democratic candidate to openly support and talk about merit pay for individual teachers on the campaign trail, didn't jump in to tackle the issue during last night's debate. You can read the transcript here.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton said she favors "school-based" merit pay, which would reward all teachers and staff members in a high-achieving school regardless of their individual abilities. That's very different than rewarding individual teachers for excelling in their jobs. "The school is a team, and I think it's important that we reward that collaboration," she said. When pressed about whether bad teachers in a school that is otherwise excelling should be given merit pay, she said those bad teachers should be "weed(ed) out." Opponents, of course, say that's easier said than done when teachers' contracts and unions make it very difficult for school districts to do just that.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, of Connecticut, the first to answer, said he would be in favor of a pay system for teachers who go into poor, rural, or difficult schools and make a difference—but didn't want a merit-pay system that rewarded teachers who taught in "better neighborhoods."

Sen. Joseph Biden, of Delaware, whose wife is a community college English instructor, said teachers should be judged and rewarded by what they do outside of the classroom — such as get advanced degrees.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson didn't really answer the question, but used his time to bash the No Child Left Behind Act and declare that he would be the next education president.

The general message from Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich is that, if he is elected, the teachers' unions would have a very good friend in the White House, which he said would be a "worker's White House." When asked whether he disagreed with the teachers' unions on any issue, he didn't name a single one.


What teacher of quality would hesitate for a second to sign on to a system of merit pay? NONE!!! Good teachers would relish the opportunity to be judged objectively on their students' performances and be paid higher for their successes. Obama and Clinton are seemingly the only serious candidates entertaining merit pay for teachers. They have not been forced into buying into the NEA's intimidating quid pro quo game of "do as we say or lose out on 3.2 million votes." Good for Obama and Clinton. They realize merit pay will have to be included in the reauthorization of NCLB once one of them is sworn in as the next president on January 20, 2009.


What you are failing to recognize is that a system of merit pay assumes that all teachers are working in classrooms with equal resources and students of similar abilities and backgrounds. However, that is not the reality in America.

Within the city I live, there are areas where children do not have access to the public library, because they are "out of district". Many of them live in households too poor to afford the $80 out of district fee to get a library card. So, outside of the school, these students are already at an educational disadvantage compared to other children their age across town -- before they even step foot in the school door.

I have watched parents of struggling readers decline free summer reading instruction. I have seen children come to school late every day, and hungry because they have had no breakfast. I have seen children fall asleep in class because their home life lacks the structure to ensure that they get enough sleep. I have seen children who barely speak English struggle to keep up with their peers. I have seen children who are the victims of abuse, and of a society that overlooks them at every turn. I have seen students whose families move several times per year, and never spend more than a couple of months in any one classroom. And, I have seen highly skilled and dedicated teachers work with these children day after day, providing an excellent education and, the only consistency in the lives of some of the students. Many classrooms are overcrowded, sometimes with upwards of 35 second grade students in one room with one teacher.

On the other side, I have worked in well funded schools that serve primarily members of the middle to upper classes, where every student has access to local resources, such as the public library, as well as families that have the means to support their educational experiences. Student class size is considerably smaller -- about 23 students per teacher.

It is of little surprise that students at the better funded school with access to resources, as a whole, do better on the standardized tests. And, it is also of little surprise that these teaching jobs are more desired and easier to fill.

What will happen if merit pay is thrown into the mix is this: Teachers who have the hardest jobs (working in the underfunded and overcrowded schools) will get paid less. Teachers who have the comparatively easier jobs of working in the better funded schools will make more. The poorly funded schools will have an increasingly difficult time in attracting and hiring qualified teachers, which will only amplify the situation.

Don't believe me? Just look at the Denver Public School System. They use a form of merit pay. And, they are desperate for teachers. (Why else would they need to turn to Teach for America?) As a teacher, why would I want to go to work for a system that will punish me financially if my students walk in the door disadvantaged, when I can work in a more affluent area and make more money?

Merit pay for teachers just perpetuates the problems in our society, and results with teachers with the least amount of formal teacher training being placed with the students who need the most help. It should be the other way around.

We don't blame doctors for the number of patients they treat with gunshot wounds, so we shouldn't blame teachers for the number of students they teach who are oppressed by our society. Treat teachers as the professionals they are, and understand that you cannot blame them for the larger problems within our society.

Focus on funding schools, reducing class size, and helping the disadvantaged in our society, and test scores will improve.


Merit pay is a good idea, however you're attack using merit pay is bad execution of that idea that doesn't get the results needed. When considering merit, teachers at low funded/in disadvantaged neighborhoods get compared to other teachers and student performances at that school and in similar schools NOT better funded/middle-upper classes. But believe me, I've been to the latter schools and there STILL are great teachers who deserve raises not based on experience along with bad teachers who don't deserve to make a lot. More merit pay should go to those teachers who start with less and make more ie very low test scores to much higher ones (relatively) versus those teachers who start with more (and I don't mean in ability) and improve them somewhat but not as much comparatively. Merit pay is not financially punishing those working with less but rather rewarding them for teaching BETTER no matter what student they have.

As for Denver, obviously they're doing it wrong if it's working out that way. As I said, you can't judge a good concept by a faulty execution. It doesn't help your point.

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