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news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Merit or Not?

The debate on teacher merit pay continues to rage.  But in the raging, we as educators, are losing some very precious ground.  Teachers, for the most part, are a docile group dedicated to the betterment of children. Administrations take advantage of this nurturing nature and use it to get teachers to take on additional tasks or increase their workloads with no additional compensation. But worsening economic conditions over the past several years have forced educators to take a hard look at their pay structure and determine whether or not it meets the needs of our competitive and capitalistic society. 

Since the 1800 ‘s there has only been three major changes in how teachers have been paid.  In the early 1800 ‘s, when the United States was a mostly agrarian economy, teaching was not considered a career, but an additional job or a woman ‘s job until she married.  Schools were mostly one room school houses and the school year was not regulated.  Wages for teachers were low, so teachers were often offered room and board at the homes of students as a way of compensation.  As the US shifted to a more industrial based economy, one roomed school houses made way for larger, graded public schools regulated by districts.  Cities began to establish salary schedules for teacher pay.  Differentiated salary schedules were set based on teacher expertise, gender, race and the grade level being taught.  Women were often paid a fraction of what men were paid, thereby giving districts the incentive to hire more female teachers as they would cost the district less money to employ.  In 1897 Margaret Haley, an organizer for the Chicago Teacher Federation (CTF), rallied for higher and more equitable teacher salaries.  The CTF became the prototype for future teacher unions across the nation.  In 1921 the first single salary schedule for teacher pay was introduced; everyone regardless of race, gender of grade level taught, was paid the same.  Pay increments were structured according to years of experience and level of education.  It is the same pay schedule used by most school districts today. Additionally, benefits were added to teacher salary compensations during World War II when companies were not allowed to increase wages.  Teachers were offered health benefits as a way to entice qualified educators into the profession.

Today, we see many of our fellow educators losing their health benefits, going years without cost of living increases, and having to take on more work, teach more kids in their classrooms, take furlough days, pay for supplies and materials out of their own pockets and continue to pay for professional upgrades and credentials necessary to maintain their jobs . The shelf life of a new teacher is approximately five years before he or she decides that in today ‘s world given the economic conditions, teaching is just not worth it. All during the recession I listened as badly informed “experts” extolled the educational field as being a “growing profession”. Really? College teacher preparation programs are at their lowest levels.  Starting teachers are paid an average of $40,000.00.  After four, sometimes five years of education, no one wants to graduate from college and take a job paying poverty level wages wit no incentives over the next thirty years to be able to earn more money for exceptional performance. 

In 1983, a government report entitled “A Nation At Risk” recommended that teacher salaries become more competitive, market sensitive and performance based.  Since that time there have been numerous attempts made to insert merit pay incentives with almost universal opposition from teacher unions and associations. Single salary schedules continue to be endorsed by unions regardless of the fact that they ensure mediocrity in the profession. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama have made a mission out of educational reform regarding merit pay for teachers.  Unfortunately, the assessment of merit seems to be based solely on academic performance indicators, test scores, of students. A poor indicator of teacher skill or performance. 

Too many factors are involved in great teaching to isolate one performance indicator to use as an assessment for reward.  Teaching is an affective profession allowing for little if any hard data regarding direct cause and effect on student performance.  Perhaps we need an objective audience to watch us perform out duties.  Are we engaging?  When watching us deliver a lesson, do we make it so enticing that others want to learn?  How do we motivate?  How do we differentiate instruction?  Engage imaginations?  How resourceful are we?  Do we tie in what we are teaching to other disciplines?  The list goes on and on.  The point is, we should be paid according to our level of expertise and excellence.  Who judges and how remains the dilemma. 

Tere Barbella is an arts educator in the East Side Union High School District of San Jose, California.

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