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Friday, September 30, 2005

Merit pay

Our distinguished governor, Mitt Romney, advocates merit pay for teachers, based on the standardized test scores of their students. Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles wrote an op-ed piece about this idea in the Boston Globe on 9/28. I was distracted by the fact that they managed to commit two logical errors in a single ten-word phrase, accusing Romney of “proving the axiom that no bad idea stays dead forever.” Aside from this flaw, their essay makes many important points, such as the bad track record that merit pay has achieved:
Teaching became more mechanical as teachers found that drill and rote repetition produced the “best” results. Both teachers and administrators were tempted to falsify results, and many did.
But they don’t bring up the three most important flaws in Romney’s proposal:
  • Merit pay destroys collaboration and collegiality. If teachers are in competition with each other, there is little incentive for experienced teachers to share good ideas and improve their colleagues’ success levels. (In some schools, like Weston, such helpfulness is noticed and could well be a component of what’s rewarded in merit pay, but Romney is talking about measuring merit by test scores, not by success as a team player.)

  • If standardized tests such as MCAS measure anything, they measure learning that has taken place over a period of years. It makes no sense to reward or punish this year’s teacher for the work of many teachers and parents over a period of years.

  • Most important is this related point: Schools aren’t businesses; if the “raw materials” aren’t up to our standards, we can’t reject them and ask for better students. We have to teach whoever shows up. Objective tests aren’t going to measure how well we do this. Who will want to teach the weakest students if we are measured by their test scores?

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