Mike the Mad Biologist

Teaching, Testing, and Training

A while back, I came across two great posts, one about merit pay (something I’ve discussed before) and the other about teacher training. First, one teacher’s take on merit pay:

Were I compensated on the basis of test scores, I would have received a huge increase this year, because of the much higher rate at which my students passed the state test. of course, next year in all likelihood I would then receive a similar sized pay cut when my pass rate drops heavily, as in all likelihood it will: the students I have this year came to me far less prepared than those of last year. I can tell right now that unless the state is manipulating the cut score used to determine passing, a much higher level of this year’s students will fail to meet state standards. In part this is because of previous preparation. It is also because I have two classes with a significant percentage of students who are totally unmotivated, and in checking their records and sitting in parent-teacher conferences, this behavior is demonstrated across their course load. I was not that much better a teacher last year than the year before, and I am certainly not that much worse now. It is inherently unfair to compensate me for things outside of my control.

Granted, conservatives don’t really care about things like unfairness, but most people in the Coalition of the Sane do. There’s also a brutal reality check about teacher training:

We know that smaller classes are often more effective, especially at the elementary level, for students who need more attention, and in teaching proper writing at the secondary level. Further, for secondary teachers to properly do their job their total load of students should be less than the 150 to 200 some of us have. If a teacher has 180 students it becomes impossible to give proper attention to individual student work when one corrects it – it simply takes too long. Do the math. If I have 180 papers to correct, and I spend 3 minutes per paper, that is 540 minutes, or 9 hours – for one assignment.

Schools have little choice but to hire anyone who is fully certified. This is especially true in schools that are in inner cities or rural areas – simply finding people to apply can be difficult. It can be true in subjects for which there is a shortage of people.

I remember some statistics from when I was in my teacher training program at Johns Hopkins. Maryland certified less than half the number of total teachers it needed each year, and one year Maryland programs only certified a total of 3 to teach physics. It is one reason that some districts ad to heavily rely upon those with provisional certificates: there simply were not enough people with full certification to fill the openings.

At one point in my career, I considered high school teaching, but what discouraged me was the lack of control over what I could teach due to testing requirements and the educational bureaucracy. It also helped that I had other options that were equally (or more) appealing–which is one reason, I think, why it’s particularly hard to find qualified science teachers.

As long as we consider teaching to be a secular equivalent of the priesthood, and not a job with the pay and workplace environment (some) other professionals have, we’re going to have a teacher shortage.


  1. #1 Michael
    December 10, 2007

    You kind of skipped over the part where “merit pay” was necessarily based only (or even significantly) on students’ test scores or passing rates. To the extent that is the basis for ratings, it would be driven by causes that “conservatives” tend to hate — like union rules and misplaced concerns over “fairness” that take human judgment out of the loop.

    As a software development manager, there are no mechanical measures that I could use as the primary judge(s) of my subordinates’ quality. The reasons for that are similar to Teacher Ken’s objections to using test scores: they are not all doing the exact same thing as each other or over time. I have to use my judgment when doing evaluations, and my evaluations and recommendations are checked by my manager to make sure I am consistent and fair when evaluating different employees. I see no reason that teacher evaluations for merit pay should be different.

  2. #2 Michael Schmidt
    December 10, 2007

    When it gets to the university level, WHO makes the judgement about merit pay becomes a big issue. The traditional faculty says there is already a mechanism in place–the tenure and promotion system, where the faculty have a large say. Administrators counter that it gives them no leverage to reward faculty who have been responsive to institutional initiatives in the realm of service or instruction, because the tenure and promotion committees tend to favor research. (Even when they try to favor teaching, they are faced with little evidence that one person is a better teacher than another. It’s far easier to count publications!) So almost everyone fears merit pay–because everyone can imagine that someone (peers or administration) will screw them for not valuing the thing that they’re best at, whether it be teaching, research or service.

  3. #3 chrisc
    December 17, 2007

    Thanks for your comments about teaching being seen as a “secular priesthood.” As a math teacher, I know that it is more difficult to find teachers in this subject than in other subjects, but I would also argue that there is the same difficulty in finding quality teachers of any subject. Some people have also suggested a subject-based pay scale, putting more money towards math and science, but as I see some of the quality history and English instruction at my school, I couldn’t see getting paid more for the work that I do in math, because there is no way that I could do the same thing with, say, comparative early American literature, which also has importance in a well-rounded education.

    Also, schools are sometimes seen as a glorified child care. I arrive at work at around 7am (some days as early as 6:30) and students have already been dropped off; not for extra help, but because the building is open and the parents need to get to work.

    When we have struggling students, I think that it is disappointing that my pay should be based on my work with a student for 1/24th of the day for 3/4th of the year. There are many factors that go into test taking and student development that are, frankly, outside of the teacher’s control.

    I would say that we always try to improve our students and I think that, for the most part, we achieve that. However, for many of our students, that improvement from the starting point still doesn’t get them to past the state-test.