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Thoughts on merit pay for teachers

May 14, 2013 by

Kenneth J. Bernstein -

which was written as a comment on this thread at Diane Ravitch’s blog..

The presumption of Merit pay for teachers is that the impact of the teacher can in some fashion be immediately measured, usually by utilizing scores on the atrocious tests upon which we rely way too much. I would remind people of the statement by Henry Adams in his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams,

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

As a teacher, I think a far better indicator of my effectiveness as a teacher is the number of students who stay in touch with me, perhaps through social media like Facebook (the last time I checked I had something over 400 of my former students, and the number goes up every week), or reaching out to me via email. This week I am having lunch with two young men who are now on to their professional lives – I taught them as 10th graders, and they asked me to get together.Or perhaps since my last decade I taught primarily sophomores, those students who return to me to ask me to write their recommendations for college and scholarship applications, even if they plan on going on in STEM related fields and I taught them government, because they feel I understand them, or they grew so much in my class, or they trust me.

Here I think back well over a decade. A young man had transferred into our school, and not having had government previously, even though it was then a 9th grade course, I taught him when he was a junior. When he was a senior, he asked me to write his recommendation for an application for the most prestigious scholarship at his college of choice, Liberty University. Now my politics are probably as far to the left as those of the late Jerry Falwell were to the right. I did not have a high opinion of Falwell. Reid knew that. But he also knew that I trusted my students, could provide an accurate description of them. In that letter I specifically talked about the political differences and what it said of Reid as a person that he trusted me, out of all his teachers, to write that recommendation. He got the scholarship.

I recount that story because I think it is far greater indicator of my quality as a teacher than any test scores.

Were I asked about other indicator, I would talk about the now more than 3 dozen of my former students who are themselves teachers or upon graduation from college this year are becoming teachers. I might refer to a student like Monica, who was originally going to be a pediatric oncologist, but after first taking government from me as a 9th grade was in my Comparative Religion class as an 11th grader, and instead decided to go to a small catholic college and work on theology and social justice. Her mother was very angry with me, but Monica felt empowered.

By the way, for what it is worth, my students tended to do very well on external tests, but that is of far less importance than the personal growth they experienced, the willingness to explore, to take risks and learn from them. I challenged them to think more deeply, consider a wider range of points of view.

I learned from them, which made me both a more effective teacher and a better human being.

Should I have been paid more by some statistical analysis of the impact I had on their lives other than their test scores? Don’t be ridiculous.

I should be paid an adequate amount for the work I did.

Whatever part I played in their subsequent success does not warrant giving me more money. The greatest compensation was their thanks.

So let me conclude this with tales of two very different students. One was an 8th grader in foster care who was angry, getting in fights, not doing well. I insisted on him coming to me for extra help by himself, and talked with him, pointing out that if he went around with a scowl on his face if he accidentally bumped into someone he would be in yet another fight. Around the end of February he began to blossom, and the same classmates with whom he used to fight selected him to be their commencement speaker. One of my most treasured possessions is the handwritten note he gave me thanking me for not giving up on him. When I last saw him, when he was a senior in high school and we ran into one another, he came over and gave me a huge bear hug.

The other occurred last year. She was brilliant. When I taught her AP government as a sophomore, I told her she seemed satisfied with getting good grades, and was not really challenging herself. She got angry at me, because she was getting 94s and 95s in my class. For most of the rest of her high school career she was cool to me. She was one of our most outstanding students, went to a prestigious university, interned at a prestigious high tech company for whom she was hired to begin work as soon as she graduated. In the spring of her senior year of college, she sent me an email, reminding me of those remarks and her response, and telling me it took her until her junior year of college to realize I was right, and thanking me. In our electronic conversations i mentioned that I was retiring, and she flew back to Maryland earlier than she had planned in order to come to my small scale retirement celebration.

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. I did not need merit pay to tell me when I was doing a good job. The students would let me know.

Daily Kos: thoughts on merit pay for teachers.

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