No merit to merit pay

The latest incarnation of NCLB would bring this harmful practice to schools nationwide.
By Joshua Pechthalt
UTLA-AFT Vice President
AFT Local 1021 President

In the past few weeks United Teachers Los Angeles joined our state and national affiliates in an effort to kill the latest incarnation of the socalled No Child Left Behind legislation. While the legislation continues to punish poor and working-class children and the teachers who work in these communities, the most recent proposal also includes a disastrous merit pay provision that would reward teachers based on student test scores.

Unfortunately, this merit pay scheme has the support of many pro-labor Democrats, including Congressman George Miller, chair of the House Education Committee; Speaker Nancy Pelosi; and Senator Ted Kennedy. Ironically, the seemingly last-minute inclusion of merit pay came at a time when many of us believed that both national teacher unions were making headway in pushing back some of the most onerous aspects of the legislation. Apparently that was not the case.

Teacher unions have historically resisted merit pay proposals because they undermine one of the core principles of teaching and learning: collaboration. Whether it is the informal discussion that takes place in the lunchroom or the more formal exchanges based on grade level, department, or small learning communities, these are only successful because as teachers we understand teaching is about working together to help our students, not competition for better pay.

At my home school, Manual Arts High, members of the social studies department often got together at lunch or after school to exchange ideas and materials. Teachers participated no matter the skill level of their students. We knew that by collaborating, our teaching would improve and in turn our students would be more successful.

Any merit pay proposal would effectively destroy collaboration at the workplace. If teachers knew that student test scores would result in higher pay, why would anyone want to share good ideas with their colleagues?

Rewarding educators based on student test scores would further exacerbate the “teach to the test” syndrome that has narrowed the curriculum and dulled the educational experience for students and teachers. It could also create conditions that would encourage cheating.

From a labor perspective merit pay would also divide the work force and in the long run lessen our ability to fight collectively to improve public education. If salaries were not simply based on years of experience and number of college credits earned or additional services provided, the teaching force at any workplace would be more stratified (differentiated) and much less willing to stand together during a conflict with school site management or during a contract struggle. The role of the union would be seriously compromised.

Impact on students
Merit pay would also hurt the very students with whom the authors of the legislation seem to be concerned. Within schools, teachers might want to teach those students whose skill levels would translate into higher test scores. Skilled, veteran teachers might be less likely to work with students with limited English proficiency or special needs children for fear their students would not test well.

In fact, merit pay would create a disincentive for the very teachers we want going into the most challenging schools and communities. Such teachers might want to move to the most affluent schools because the monetary rewards would be greater. This could have a devastating impact in our poorest communities.

What this latest version of NCLB fails to do and what the legislation has failed to do from its inception is to provide assistance to the children who need it the most. While the Bush administration and the Democratic supporters of NCLB talk about academic improvement for poor children, they have consistently failed to provide resources to lower class size and provide additional social services at the school sites. Further they have stymied the trained professionals—teachers— from making education come alive for our most marginalized and alienated students.

Rather, NCLB imposes the narrowest form of student assessment—multiple choice tests—and then punishes the teachers and the schools when the unrealistic Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) benchmarks are not achieved. The truth is, more and more schools will fail to meet the AYP in the future as the threshold continues to rise. Independent studies in several states project that by the year 2014—the year all students are required to be proficient in reading, math, and science between 75 and 99 percent of all schools will fail to meet AYP. This will lead to a series of possible sanctions, some purposefully designed to provide public funding for charter schools and private companies who will come in to provide consulting services. In the words of one of my former principals, “NCLB is like a train wreck. The first train cars are those in poor communities but eventually all the cars will jump off the track.”

Which way forward?
Over the course of a few days UTLA members made more than 600 phone calls to local congress members as wellas Miller and Pelosi. Other teacher locals in California have also been making calls and writing letters. While Congressman Miller seems undeterred in his efforts to promote merit pay, for the time being the legislation has slowed down.

What has been missing from the effort to turn around NCLB has been the grass-roots organizing and mobilizing of our members, parents, and community allies. Our national affiliates should be moving to bring members to Washington for demonstrations that give visible support to our position on NCLB. When California legislators like Miller and Pelosi move in the wrong direction, we should be marching and picketing in front of their offices.

We should also be developing literature that speaks to the problems of the legislation while proposing alternatives that offer real hope to public school parents. Currently we are working with our state affiliates to develop such literature. These could be followed up with town hall meetings where we could engage parents and community members about the problems in our schools and the need to build coalitions to expand resources for public schools.

UTLA will continue working with our members and our community and labor partners to send a clear message to our national affiliates and federal legislators that we need legislation that gives educators the tools to raise-up all our students—not regressive measures that further divide and punish our communities.

Published in United Teacher Volume XXXVII, Number 3, November 9, 2007