Today, in conversation about merit-based pay for teachers, I realized how much my views have changed on this topic because of my current position. Back when I used to teach in schools that were passing the standardized tests, I thought it was a great way to reward teachers for a job well done and incentivize others to step up their game. Given my current situation, though, I think merit-based pay is incredibly unfair.
I've always been able to understand, on a logical level, that there are so many external factors that impact student performance in the classroom (and on these standardized tests), but I didn't really feel that burden until this year.
I may have already mentioned that in my school, students are grouped together in sections for the entirety of the day. That means they are tracked, not only for core classes but for ancillary classes too. I won't even get into how this is a burden for the classroom teacher because of the behavior problems it causes. Instead, I will address how unfair it is when you consider how teachers are paid based on student scores on the standardized tests.
In my grade level, there are two of us who teach ELA. There are 6 sections of students, and they are divided based on scores from the previous year. We have two "magnet" classes (meaning, they scored "basic" on last year's iLEAP), but she has the higher half of those students while I have the lower half. Meaning, my students are barely at basic, while hers are much more likely to jump to mastery or advanced. Of the four remaining classes, there are two with huge behavior problems (thankfully, I think these are equally split), and one that is an inclusion class (mine). So, of the six sections, I teach the three lowest at each level.
Raises and bonuses are given to teachers in my school based on student growth. However, since the state awards the most points for students who have grown from "approaching basic" to "basic," you better believe that's where most of the pressure lies for teachers as well. The problem for me, is that nearly half of my inclusion class scored a "unsatisfactory" last year, and no points are awarded for growing a student to "approaching basic." None. Zero.
So, putting all these kids in one class clearly gives those teachers a disadvantage. See where I'm going here?
Even if my students weren't tracked the way they are, I still wouldn't be a fan of this system.
My students are dealing with poverty, abandonment, starvation, unmedicated mental health problems, drugs, violence, gangs, etc. And that's before you even consider the academic inadequacies with which they enter my classroom each day. For many, the ability to read and write properly just isn't a priority, especially when they're aware of how far behind they are in the 8th grade. Instead, they're concerned with the realities of street life and all it brings.
Teaching these students is an uphill battle, even despite the great working relationships I've built with them. Their knowledge gaps are simply too wide to address in the confines of a school day. (Before you ask, these students are already identified for special education.)
I resent the idea that my effectiveness as a teacher comes down to how these students will perform on a standardized test. One that we already acknowledge is biased against this population.
I understand there is a need to hold teachers accountable, but you have to consider the fact that we're working with whole-persons here. Students are not computers; I can't just program them with the information and have them spit it back out on a test.
I wish I had the answer. I wish I knew of a better way to assess the value of each teacher. I just don't think it will ever be simple. How can it be?