Monday, Feb. 16, 2009 | It can be said that there is nowhere a teacher who is a teacher for the money. With its relatively low pay and high importance to society, teaching is one of the most honorable professions a person can enter.

This lack of adequate pay and the question of how to regulate payment of teachers have given rise to a rather fervent debate over whether to pay teachers according to their merit and performance and therefore pay teachers different amounts or leave an equal-pay system in place despite the obvious unfairness.

In our capitalist society, workers are judged based on performance, and those that underperform are fired, demoted, or paid less in order to produce the best outcome for the company. Should not teachers be held to standards or performance like other members of the workforce? Would this not increase the good performance of teachers just as it increases performance of individuals in other professions? In theory they should, and yes, it would.

One main ideal of capitalism is that hypothetically every worker or entity possesses the same opportunity to pull himself up by his own bootstraps and succeed. Regardless of whether this hypothetical is anything more than that in traditional business, it certainly is not a realistic statement when applied to public school teachers. So theoretically, merit pay is the best way to ensure the presence of hard-working teachers, but the problems that arise from establishing merit pay, namely how to judge merit, outweigh the potential benefits.

A typical public school curriculum, at least at the middle and high school levels, consists of a medley of course options with some subjects having more advanced and less advanced options. A teacher who teaches an advanced class will by definition have more advanced and either smarter or more hard-working students. This fact combined with the typical method of determining a teacher’s merit, test scores of students, results in a very flawed, very unfair system of evaluating a teacher’s performance and eventual paycheck. No matter how hard a teacher might try or how extraordinary his or her teaching style is, test scores of students ultimately come down to the students. This is why they are students’ test scores and teachers’ test scores. They are designed to determine the academic success of a student and so are not extremely valuable in deciding the merit of that student’s instructor. Advanced students will perform better on standardized tests than less advanced students will, even though the teachers of advanced students are not necessarily performing better than teachers of the less advanced students.

At the elementary school level, the ratio of smarter children to average or below average students is about the same for all teachers, so an accumulation of test results would, perhaps, be more valid at this level than in middle or high school, except that segregation of students does occur in elementary school in the form of GATE and Seminar classes. Even though it may be less a problem in elementary schools, judging merit based on students and not teachers is inadequate at all levels of public education.

If student test scores are not a valid way to evaluate teachers, then what is? The answer is that there is no completely surefire way to determine an educational instructor’s merit and success with the methods available today. This does not mean that efforts to reward the good teachers and weed out the bad should be abandoned; there is still a need for progress even if it is finite. Some aspects of teacher employment can be eliminated to promote good teaching, such as tenure. The guarantee of keeping a teaching position promotes laziness and insincerity on the part of the teacher and therefore a suboptimal learning experience for students.

In the perfect situation, teachers would be evaluated for merit based on a 100 percent accurate system and paid based on the evaluation.

Reality is never a perfect situation and neither is this particular reality. It is more unfair that some teachers are paid more than others when a flawed system is used to determine that payment than it is that all teachers are paid similar amounts regardless of success. Replacing an inadequate system with another inadequate one does not solve any problems; it only makes the problem more complex.

Michael Conroy is a junior and La Jolla High School. His essay reached the finals of the 2009 Essay Contest. The other finalists’ pieces will run this week with the winner’s appearing Friday, Feb. 20.

Works Cited

Dillon, Sam. “Long Reviled, Merit Pay Gains Among Teachers.” New York Times Online. 18 June 2007. The New York Times. 19 Jan 2009 <<a href=””>>.

Lewis, Beth. “Pros and Cons of Merit Pay for Teachers.” The New York Times Company. 19 Jan 2009 <<a href=””>>.

“Tenure.” NEA Higher Education Advocate Online. National Education Association. 19 Jan 2009 <<a href=””>>.

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