A teacher in Boynton Beach sent me a letter he wrote to President Obama in 2010, trying to explain why merit pay doesn’t work. Obviously, no one at the White House or the U.S. Department of Education agrees with him. Since 2010, matters have gotten even worse, especially in Florida, where the Legislature mandated merit pay and provided no funding for it. No one at the White House or the U.S. Department of Education or the Florida legislature or any of the conservative governors seems to know or care that merit pay is not supported by evidence. They just like it, and it doesn’t matter that it never works.

Dear President Obama,

It appears my worst fears on the issue of teacher merit pay are now beginning to be realized – as a direct result of your administration’s general support and Race to the Top incentives for the concept. As such, I am re-sending this letter, originally sent the 2nd week of August, 2009 and again six weeks later due to no response. I believe the importance of this argument and its growing urgency justify my doing so.

Please allow me to begin by expressing my great, heartfelt appreciation for all you have undertaken and done so far in your still-young administration – particularly in these urgent and challenging times.

With this said, I feel conflicted – and, as an inner-city public high school teacher, compelled – to express my concern for one of your educational reform proposals. As I understand it, your announced support for a teacher merit pay plan is, I feel, misplaced. The concept of teacher merit pay is itself fundamentally ill conceived and corrosive in its societal, professional, and personal potential effects.

Please let me explain why. In its simplest and most positive reading, merit pay offers monetary rewards and public recognition to teachers of outstanding, measurable excellence and, possibly, effort. Since the number of teachers so honored will inevitably be limited in any given year, the program will create a much larger pool of non-recipients, many of whom will be hard working, praise-worthy teachers, who will automatically be labeled, at best, “average,” and at worst, “inferior,” or “substandard.” You, in fact, note and apparently endorsed this perception when speaking of educational reforms generally and this plan specifically, as you said in March of 2009: “We need to make sure our students have the teacher they need to be successful. That means states and school districts taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom.”

There are teachers who are incompetent or ineffective; I agree that they should be removed. Fair ways to assess such performance already exist. I doubt there is a school district anywhere without an established procedure for removing underperforming teachers. A teacher merit pay program, however, by its inescapable “praise some, condemn the rest” dynamic, is an improper and unfair method of doing this. Judiciously standardizing and enforcing the process of identifying and removing underperforming teachers is, I believe, a worthy and honest federal Department of Education goal. A merit pay plan as a means to do this is neither.

Because a merit pay program will create the impression among parents and students alike that there are a few good teachers, and the rest are inferior, the recognized teachers will be in greatest demand, not only at their schools but at other intra-district schools, inter-district schools, or even other states or organizations. A bidding war for such recognized teachers would no doubt be good for those teachers,

but a potential disaster for their school and community, especially if such teachers leave. Moreover, you immediately put every other teacher in an untenable position. What are they to say to those parents and students who now find they have to settle for those “inferior” educators? A plan that fosters a symbiotic relationship between school and community goals is, I believe, a worthy DOE goal. A merit pay program will do the opposite.

Professionally, the actual process of determining who deserves the merit pay is problematic in every respect. Whatever criteria are ultimately used, with whatever weight or priority assigned to each, some group of trained, objective and competent individuals must devote time and energy to the process – time and energy that, one can argue, should be better spent.

Insofar as the actual assessment goes, various methods – both objective and subjective – exist, each with their own advantages and shortcomings. Ultimately, however, it will almost inevitably include some form of student testing. Few teachers, administrators, parents or students would welcome yet more mandated testing. It has been a profoundly sad and questionable effect of the No Child Left Behind Act that mandated testing has gradually displaced – and sometimes altogether eliminated – virtually all other educational goals and their affiliated programs. Many of these endangered and terminated programs offer individualized student options for success; toward workforce ready skill- sets in career areas the student shows an interest, ability and desire in –frequently involving academically empowered technical training. Indeed, as authors Kenneth Gray and Edwin Herr expose in their book, Other Ways to Win, and Thomas Freidman reinforces in The World Is Flat, the virtually exclusive educational focus preparing all students for a four-year college degree leaves many students behind. In fact, the authors suggest, workforce areas of high demand today are increasingly underserved as a direct result.

I am heartened that past comments you have made suggest your awareness of some of the NCLB program’s dubious effects. The truth is that standardized tests, however valid, in no way connote standardized classroom challenges for the teacher. How then is a program to account for – and equalize for the sake of fairly assessing teacher merit – the wholly disparate nature of classes even across the day for the same teacher, let alone the myriad combinations and differences otherwise? Until a merit pay plan’s “hows” and “whys” are understood; until it demonstrates it recognizes and respects the distinct conditions under which teachers teach, you cannot expect teachers to endorse it. I can only hope you demonstrate the esteem for teacher unions that you have claimed you have for teachers. Their notable absence of input in the NCLB program’s design and mechanics correlates directly with the current teacher and administrator lack of support for, and frustration with it today.

In a July, 2008 speech to the National Education Association, regarding your support for merit pay you said, “Now I know this wasn’t necessarily the most popular part of my speech last year, but I said it then and I’m saying it again now because it’s what I believe and I will always be an honest partner to you in the White House.” With the vast majority of teachers against the merit pay idea, a consensus among partners is badly needed. A drive to collate and assess our nation’s teachers’ greatest local pressures and challenges could be a DOE goal toward creating such a consensus. A merit pay plan that will exacerbate teachers’ pressures and challenges will divide, not unite us.

On the personal level, a merit pay plan risks humiliation, frustration, invalidation, and dissention and rancor among the many for the benefit of the few. The attrition rate among new teachers is probably the highest among any professional group, not because they have been deemed incompetent, but because the effort, energy, time and work they give; the grief and thanklessness they receive quickly burn people out, and certainly aren’t worth the pay they get for it. Submitting to a federally sanctioned stigma of merit “non-recognition”, one might be able to tell oneself, does not necessarily mean I am a failure or my performance is sub-standard. But it surely offers no prospect of validation.

Teachers are taught that a student’s self-image matters. I would suggest this is true of adults and teachers too. And human nature being what it is, where a merit pay process perceives an individual as exemplary, but a number of their coworkers do not, dissonance and bad feelings are unavoidable.

Teaching is also a learning process. Many young teachers, some of whom undoubtedly have enormous potential, capitulate to the difficulties and leave early. Merit pay will only hasten their departure and further challenge all teachers’ perspectives.

For each of the reasons stated above I urge you to reconsider your support for teacher merit pay. I am aware my concern may be viewed as premature, since no actual plan has yet been publically proposed. One is anticipated, though, based on your oft-repeated support for it. As a teacher I understand that we, with administrators, are the system’s “front line”. As such, we answer to the rules, regulations and processes expected of us. But accountability, the current touchstone for education generally and teachers specifically, is not value-neutral. One is never “held accountable” for success or any positive outcome. Inasmuch the NCLB heralds “the arrival of accountability” to education, it insidiously suggests the system has heretofore been negligent. Cast in such light, an adversarial dynamic is created among the various players, with teachers again on the front line. Problematic assessment programs are themselves never held to account for either the pall they cast over the system or for the dysfunctional dynamics they foster; we teachers, almost exclusively, are.

Of all the ideas I’ve heard put forth for reforming and improving our public education system, none strike me as more prescient or promising than yours for universal preschool programs. As Geoffrey Canada has demonstrated with Harlem Children’s Zone and you have said, “research shows that early experiences shape whether a child’s brain develops strong skills for future learning, behavior and success. Without a strong base on which to build, children, particularly disadvantaged children, will be behind long before they reach kindergarten.” If a merit pay plan is to be mandated, it should be put in place only after the universal preschool program you propose has become the norm. Many of the students at my high school, a large number of whom are children of recently arrived immigrants, come without the strong base you describe. As a result, my school, as assessed by the system, faltered this past year (2008-2009). We now face the full impact of the accounting’s consequences. We will now narrow our focus even more to teach to the tests, and in the process lose the educational forest for the trees.

President Obama, I believe in your goals for our nation. For improving our educational system, however, teacher merit pay is completely counterproductive.

Thanking you for your consideration, I remain Sincerely Yours,

Martin Ginsberg martygraaa@yahoo.com

P.S. In Florida, Republican sponsored and partisan-passed Senate Bill 6 and its companion House Bill created great turmoil and stress – while exacerbating the “adversarial dynamic” mentioned above. Governor Crist vetoed it today as the Republican Party chair in the Florida Senate vowed to reintroduce it. It appears Georgia is now in the process of following suit.