The city of New York and the UFT (our teachers’ union) have agreed on a new bonus program – depending on whom you ask, it may or may not be merit pay – in which schools with a high proportion of needy students who raise the children’s test scores will earn extra money to be distributed among teachers. Each school sets up a committee to determine how to divide up the money – equally, or as a reward to standout teachers, or some other way (not based on seniority). The program is voluntary; schools vote on whether or not to participate. There were some other aspects of the deal regarding retirement benefits and whatnot, but I don’t think those are the controversial part.
So here are my initial thoughts, which don’t necessarily come down all on the “for” or the “against” side…. or any other side.
1. If my school qualifies, I imagine that we’ll vote to join. We do a pretty good job, got that A on our progress report, there’s no penalty if we DON’T raise test scores (at least, no NEW penalty), we like a challenge, and we trust each other. We stand to gain a few thousand dollars a piece and have nothing to lose. But notice those words in italics: trust is the key here. Some people are making claims that this will serve as an incentive for teachers to work together and collaborate more than they already do. But my gut tells me that in schools with high levels of trust and collaboration, this will work well, but that in schools with a divisive culture, it will make no difference or serve to divide the faculty even more. I think collaboration and coordination are the product of good leadership, resources available to free people up to plan together, and probably some other similar things that I can’t find names for right now. Once upon a time I worked in a much larger school with a fair amount of internal conflict. I don’t think dangling cash over our heads would have changed that very much…. and when I worked there, I would never have voted for a rewards system like this because I did not feel like a part of something larger than myself and did not trust my colleagues to work together towards a common goal.
2. Even if we accept – for real or for the sake of argument – the validity of test scores as a measure of a school’s effectiveness, rather than some sort of more comprehensive assessment like the school progress report (or the other new assessment tool being piloted at the DOE, the school visit and evaluation, I forget what it’s called), I admit to some concern about which test scores will count. If a school gets a reward for raising its English and Math scores, will only those teachers share the money? How many schools will recognize the contributions of other subject-area teachers? If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know how much work I do on literacy and math within science. In my school – and again this is a trust issue – I know that the other teachers recognize that the work each of us does contributes to the overall success of our students (both in setting a serious tone and in providing skills practice and instruction). I would not fear being left out of any sort of reward – but what if I worked somewhere else?
That’s the selfish part of this concern; now for the educational part. Suppose the reward really does work as an incentive for teachers at a school to increase collaboration. The staff sits down together to make a plan. They realize that only the Math and English tests “count” – so the logical thing to do is throw the school’s resources and instructional time towards those subject areas. Some argue in favor of keeping those subjects because of a commitment to comprehensive liberal education, but they are outvoted. Okay, this is an extreme picture I’m painting here, but Science and Social Studies teachers already battle for our subjects to get fair time and resources – witness all the stories of principals saying, “Come back and talk to me when your test counts….” – without potentially lining up our colleagues against us, too.
I guess my major concern here is whether the measures chosen to judge which schools are successful are fair and inclusive.
3. All that said, I am generally pro experimentation; as a young, ambitious person in this field, I find the current system of rewards and differentials and salary steps constricting and frustrating. It’s time for things to change. We deserve to be compensated more when we do a really great job; we deserve to work in a system that recognizes that some school settings pose a greater challenge on a day-to-day basis than others. There are a ton of obstacles to creating a new, fair system, but that’s not a reason not to try. I like that this one is voluntary. If disagree with the rest of this paragraph, or you work in a school where this plan would clearly be a disaster, then you can choose to stick to the old plan; if you, like me, want to try something new, and you work in an environment of trust and collaboration, then you can sign on to the new one.