Teacher performance pay oversimplifies a complex problem




by Christopher Paslay


“Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom.”


These were the words of Barack Obama in his first education policy speech last month.  He believes that performance pay is the spark needed to motivate our nation’s educators.   


I agree that rewarding good teachers with extra money is a nice gesture, but how is this raising the bar when it comes to education?  Talented teachers committed to reaching their students will produce regardless of pay; they are dedicated to the profession for reasons other than salary.


Struggling teachers might be motivated by pay, but this assumes that they have the capability to achieve in the first place.  Often times less effective teachers lack the resources and experience needed to succeed.  They receive little help from parents and community, and in too many cases their university training does not properly prepare them for life in a real classroom. 


Performance pay is unrealistic.  The Philadelphia School District doesn’t have the stability to set reliable student performance targets, nor do they have the resources necessary to properly assess these targets.  In addition, politics would get in the way of assessments—a teacher’s personality could end up being more important than their performance.


Performance pay also suggests that the problem with education is teachers, and that the problem with teachers is that they are not working hard enough.  As a dedicated educator, this idea is insulting.  Granted, there are cases where teachers are not meeting their full potential, but to generalize educators as Obama does is quite insensitive.        


Most teachers are in the classroom eight hours a day, and bring work home at night and on the weekends.  We write the lesson, produce the lesson (generating and copying all the materials), present the lesson, and grade the lesson. 


How many business executives write, produce, present, and assess five hour-long presentations a day, every day?  And how many do this with an audience of 30 children distracted by cell phones and iPods, kids with ADD or autism, kids who don’t understand how to resolve conflict non-violently because they don’t have a father and their mother is suffering from addiction problems? 


Of course, an educator’s time in the classroom is only one segment of the job.  Teachers must also deal with IEPs, CSAPs, and all manner of paperwork; we must attend meetings with parents, counselors, and administrators; we must go to workshops and professional development; we must tutor, mentor, and coach.  And some of us must do this for six subjects at a time, with 180 students at a clip


According to a recent article in the Inquirer (“Second look at merit pay for teachers”), “Changing the way teachers are paid is an idea whose time has come, one key to fixing a broken education system . . .”


Notice the words, broken education system.  This phrase is so overused by newspapers and politicians that it’s become boilerplate.  It’s almost as generic as the phrase quality teacher.     


What about our broken society?  Our instant gratification culture?  Do you think iPhones are helping lengthen attention spans?  Do you think the violence and soft core pornography found on television and in video games is helping our students get interested in reading The Grapes of Wrath


What about the lack of family?  The lack of guidance from community?  Kids with no father?  Kids with no parents at all?  


What about OxyContin?  Obesity?  Gangsta rap?  Are these things part of our “broken education system”?    


What about the lack of responsibility from the students themselves?


It’s amazing how these issues are consistently overlooked, and the blame is placed solely on the teachers and the schools. 


Merit pay is impractical and short-sighted.  It stereotypes our nation’s educators, and oversimplifies an incredibly complex problem.