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I’m sharing my blog today with Jill Kerper Mora, associate professor emerita at the School of Teacher Education at San Diego State University. She is blogging about why she believes merit pay based on student test scores won’t work. For another viewpoint, check out our earlier Blogger for a Day, local attorney Tyler Cramer. This is her second post.

These are her views, not mine, so if you have comments, questions or counterarguments, please e-mail Jill directly at Don’t forget to tell her if she can use your name to respond to your points in a blog post! — Emily Alpert

This morning, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a special legislative session focusing on education that he hopes will establish merit pay for teachers based on students’ test scores to meet the requirements of the federal Race to the Top initiative. The Governor states that he does not want California to miss out on the federal stimulus monies. Legislators could vote by October to overturn the law that currently prohibits the use of students’ test data for evaluating and compensating teachers so that the state is eligible to submit a Race to the Top grant.

What is likely to happen during this special legislative session and in the future if the law regarding merit pay based on linking judgments about teachers’ performance to their students test scores? This is very likely to be a very contentious battle. Teachers, both individually and collectively, have a great deal at stake in this debate. Although Mr. and Mrs. Average Citizen may not realize it, so does the public at large.

Our legislators will be under enormous pressure to comply with federal guidelines in order to make the state’s schools eligible for federal funds, while the California Teachers Association must be responsive to the opinions and concerns of its members. At the heart of the matter is the issue of how dramatic changes in the way teachers are evaluated for employment action and pay increases will affect both teachers’ work lives and student achievement. Is it reasonable to impose an evaluation system on teachers and principals through force of law to which they are strongly opposed?

As I described in this morning’s post, the use of students’ test scores in determining teachers’ relative “merit” is fraught with difficulties and pitfalls. Somehow, the Obama administration’s education officials have concluded that merit pay will lead to improved teacher effectiveness, which in turn will lead to improved academic achievement, and closure of the infamous “achievement gap” between students from economically well-off and their underprivileged peers, mostly poor, minority and non-English speaking students.

I argue that the opposite is true and that, in fact, merit pay requirements will have a negative effect over the long-term on student achievement.

To use another analogy, merit pay is like holding a lighted match under the thermostat in order to claim that the temperature of the room is rising. If the current testing regime becomes even more “high stakes” for teachers, they will certainly seek out teaching assignments in schools where students are the most likely to score high on tests or to show improvements in test scores from year to year. This means that teachers will avoid schools with the student populations who are most in need of high quality instructors.

In addition, teachers will narrow their teaching as much as possible to the curriculum standards that are most likely to be tested. This “teaching to the test” is already a huge problem since tests are designed to measure the lower levels of knowledge such as memorized facts rather than critical thinking skills or innovative thinking. However, teachers will have little or no incentives to work toward the kinds of innovations in instruction and deep educational reforms that the Race to the Top grants call for because of the risks they take of not meeting the test score criteria for promotions and tenure if they experiment with new methods and approaches.

The public must be concerned with the long range impact on teachers’ professional lives and students’ abilities to learn the kinds of complex and sophisticated knowledge that will enable them to compete in our highly technical and globalized economy. If teachers are demoralized by the loss of control over their professional lives that an externally imposed evaluation system represents, more teachers will leave teaching and fewer new teachers will be motivated to enter the profession. The short-term rise in the room temperature will result in a severe chill once the match goes out.

Policymakers, educators and the public must all watch closely as our legislators gather information, listen to their constituents’ thoughts and opinions, and then argue the pros and cons of changing state law to permit the use of student test data for evaluating teachers to respond to the Race to the Top initiative. We all share in the high stakes of high-stakes testing.


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