In the midst of teacher layoffs, protests, and an uncertain future for education in general, there is irony in talking about performance-based pay, and particularly about grants (bonuses) given out for—what else—performance on one or another standardized test. Yet this issue is indicative of many of the core problems in education, from an over-emphasis on assessment at the expense of teaching to the hostility rampant in the field today.
When President Obama reacted gleefully to the firing of an entire high school faculty in Rhode Island, he set the tone for the “attack the teacher” mentality sweeping the country. This is not a political diatribe against the president or either party; both Republicans and Democrats are calling for educational heads to roll—largely, teachers’ heads. This is the first election year I personally remember when, instead of being promised the moon because “education matters” we are being shown the door because education matters, but teachers have no important role in it.
Are there bad teachers who do not deserve their salary and certainly should not receive bonuses of any sort? Of course. Just as there are incompetents and worse in any profession, there are those in our profession whose presence should not be tolerated. One of my sons had a teacher who routinely slept the day away; another had a teacher with a severe drinking problem who would ask students to help carry the evidence to the car. Those teachers and others like them should not be in the field; they represented dangers to the children and were incapable of teaching. Other abuses are well-documented by the press. For example, the quarter-of-a-million dollars it costs taxpayers to fire a teacher in New York City is so far beyond stupid that it defies words. Sometimes unions really do overstep the bonds of common sense and fairness, and that hurts all of us.
On the other hand, there’s no question that teachers need protection from the injustice of “performance-based” pay. Please notice the quotation marks, they’re important—because I don’t believe that the idea of performance-based pay making the rounds has anything to do with performance.
Test-driven “bonuses,” “grants,” “donations”—call them anything you want. The ones with which I am most familiar are unfair and divisive, and truly have little to do with performance.
In local districts, schools sometimes have not applied for available grants because of the complexity of paperwork. Automatically, this excludes any number of superlative educators from being compensated for exceptional work. So just as a starting point, performance-based bonuses are not equally available to reward teachers, regardless of how qualified they are.
Additionally, educators receiving those grants are primarily—in some cases only—“core” teachers. Core teachers are those teachers whose students take the state-mandated tests. In some cases, the core teachers receive up to several thousand dollars for having tested students, but teachers in pre-K through 2nd grade are “support” students, who receive virtually nothing.
Excuse me? My master’s degree makes me a “support” teacher? My colleagues finishing their masters, and in some cases administrative and other advanced degrees are of no more use to the students than are crossing guards and custodial staff? Teaching degrees require the same number of hours and represent the same financial investment for teachers who administer or don’t administer state tests—yet the returns on those degrees are now dependent on the assignment to a “core” grade.
Let’s say you are one of those parents who simply don’t see why a child should go to school. Laws are to be broken, right? Situational ethics, life today—it happens. Really it does. Those reading this may not believe any parent could be so negligent. But pretend for a moment that you avoided sending your child to school. You send your child to third grade with no previous schooling. Does the child pass the state-mandated test? No. The teacher is a failure, because he/she did not find a way to make the child successful. Ahhh—but the other 21 passed, due to their years in early elementary, the hard work of their third grade teacher, the support of their responsible parents (I’m looking right at you now) and such. So, the teacher overall has excellent results and will, eventually, receive a three thousand dollar bonus.
Tested-subject teachers work hard. They benchmark about every other week—benchmarking being the test before the test—they have tutoring, often every day including Saturdays, they fret over each student and how that student will perform.
Granted, and I don’t begrudge a penny of that three thousand dollars.
But pre-K teachers once barred the door to prevent those students from bolting when their moms and dads left. They cleaned vomit when the custodial staff didn’t come quickly enough and fished kids who’d had accidents out of restrooms. Calmed fears, settled fights. Sometimes were attacked by the kids—I’ve seen teachers dodging nails and feet while protecting a child having a violent tantrum from hurting someone else or himself. (Yes, teachers in upper grades have these problems, too—but it starts in pre-K, as does so much else.)
And you know what else? I’ve seen pre-K kids sit down at a computer and read and pass tests by the end of the school year. Which child will succeed in third—the child who reads in pre-K, or the one who walked into third grade without having any foundation?
In the interest of K and 2nd grade teachers, I’ll gloss over their contributions, saying only that they are as essential as the teachers at any grade level. I teach first, however, and can provide very detailed information as to what first grade entails.
For some reason, many administrators and many parents seem to hold that first grade is of little importance, but at least in Texas, more of the state-mandated, tested objectives are introduced in first than in any other grade. We introduce the concepts that students must master, and subsequent grades deepen and develop students’ understanding.
In many ways, we’re not unlike the earlier grades. We still have runaways, criers, and students who come in with no formal schooling. We have parents who have seen their children go through pre-K and K, but still won’t walk out of the building and let their little ones flourish. We also have the parents who drag in their children at 9 or 10 on Mondays, if they bring them at all, uncaring that the children are struggling with their schoolwork. We have the students, as do other grades, we must report to social agencies because we fear abuse.
We teach. When we can, because in first grade—we also test. Oral language, reading tests, district tests, norm-referenced tests like the ITBS and its Spanish counterpart, Logramos, reading readiness tests—one assessment after another, not unlike our colleagues in the upper grades.
And yet, all those tests have no value, often, in establishing who deserves performance-based bonuses. In Texas, many districts administer the TPRI/Tejas Lee as a measure of reading readiness and development. Students may start as “undeveloped” in all areas and go to “developed” in all areas, increase their reading from 0 words a minute to the targeted 60 words a minute—or more—but that amazing growth does not qualify teachers as high-performing.
In pre-K through 1st grade, in many districts, there is no recognition that there could be no success from 3rd through college without the work of those teachers. Bonuses based on “performance” not only do not foster morale and a feeling of shared commitment, as some proponents suggest, but actually can be divisive and create feelings of frustration and futility when they are given only to a few teachers who happen to administer those precious state-mandated assessments.
With many cash-strapped states eliminating grants for performance-based bonuses, the point may be moot—at the moment. But when the tides shift, once again, the issue of fairly compensating teachers who may not necessarily administer state tests will be of concern.
Some schools have provided a base amount for each certified classroom teacher, and then added monies for results in the grade-appropriate evaluation criteria already in place. These plans even provided lesser amounts for those who serve students, but are not certified teachers. This plan seems fairer than implying that only those teachers who actually administer specific tests have value.
Even the best of bonus plans will have detractors, and who determines performance—and how—are major issues. But giving bonuses only to certain teachers because of the test they administer, rather than the educational opportunities they provide students, is both insult and injury.
(Other concerns—performance-based salaries and what performance means, and the whole hornets nest of assessments and “accountability.”)