Teacher Merit Pay: rewarding bootlickers?
by Gary K. Clabaugh
by Gary K. Clabaugh
Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University
When I consider teacher merit pay, I’m reminded of a situation I observed while teaching seventh grade. Our school’s meager instructional resources were “stored” in the classroom of the principal’s favorite teacher. The practical consequence was that his needs were always the very first priority. And no, his classroom was not better suited for storage.
How did this fellow become the principal’s favorite? Simple, he was the school's most proficient bootlicker. Unimpeded by a sense of honor, he groveled and stroked the principal's ego with astonishing alacrity. In consequence this fellow got first access to the scarce equipment. For the same reason he also got the choicest students.What does any of this have to do with teacher merit pay? Well, had it then existed, Mr. Bootlicker would have had first dibs on that too.
Aren't high stakes test scores supposed to be the chief criteria for assigning merit pay? That preference has been softening of late. To reduce the reliance on increasingly unpopular high stakes treating. principals now are envisioned to play a bigger role. That means sucking up to them will convey even bigger advantages.
Sometimes, if the principal has decided to become a recluse, bootlicking the key secretary will do. I know of a situation where an elementary school secretary allowed a teacher who toadied up to her to pick all the kids for her class. The other grade-level teachers got what was left. (Think of what this would mean should test scores remained the first criteria.
One in Thirty Occupations
A key conception behind merit pay is that teacher productivity will increase because they will try harder. Another idea is that since the most-skilled teachers will make more money they will stick with the job,. Meanwhile the least-capable teachers will be making less money and tend to opt out. But the more likely outcome is that the teachers will compete at teaching for the tests.
Yes, research does tell us that merit pay really does increase job performance in all kinds of jobs, but only when that performance can be clearly measured. The trouble is that for most jobs accurate measurement is not possible. That’s why only one in thirty occupations feature straightforward performance contracts.
Teaching has never been one of the thirty. That’s because the full scope of a teacher’s job performance is notoriously opaque. How would a school administrator know, for example, which teachers are actually improving the quality of children’s lives? Yet what could be more important?
Most of what happens in school happens when the classroom door is shut. That's why administrators can’t really tell which teachers routinely extend a helping hand or comfort. They can’t tell which teachers protect the weak from bullies. Hell, they can’t even tell which teachers model the kind of behavior we hope the kids will adopt. Yet all of these things are far more important than standardized test scores, much less a teacher's bootlicking skills How, then, will merit pay be fairly distributed?The answer to that is: It won't.
Suppose, for example, a youngster comes to class with a sadly deficient self-concept. But due to the patience, skill, and caring of her teacher, she leaves with a new sense of self-worth. Surely such a result is meritorious even if the child’s test scores remain unchanged. But can this sort of thing be well enough measured to be rewarded?
Merit pay proponents tell us not to worry; they’re working on more subtle ways to measure merit. But that’s humbug. It’s just is not possible to accurately measure the many subtle but crucial aspects of a teacher’s job. It is possible, however, to identify and reward the best bootlickers.