Thursday, September 6, 2007

Little "Merit" in Merit Pay

By Senator Jay Paul Gumm of Durant, Okla.

Hello again, everybody! As children, we learn about the game known as “chicken.”

This is a game most of us learn on elementary school playgrounds, but it is also played in politics. A big game of “chicken” with serious consequences for Oklahoma’s children is underway.

Leaders in the House of Representatives declare there will be no more teacher pay raises without so-called “merit pay” being in the mix. They have the power to back up their threat because they can stop any teacher pay raise by bottling it up in a committee.

Many of us believe teachers have been historically underpaid. We have made progress in raising teacher salaries during the past few years, but we still have a ways to go.

For those of us who believe teachers are underpaid, their declaration is no different than the schoolyard bully running at another child as fast as he can, daring him or her to “chicken” out. Sadly, though, the consequences of this game are far greater than a few bumps and bruises.

I do not like most merit pay plans out there. “Merit pay” – more often than not – uses standardized test scores as a key component of determining “merit.” We already over-emphasize standardized tests when evaluating schools.

At their core, merit pay plans that use tests are misguided and do not truly reflect teacher performance. Test scores fail to take into account one fundamental fact: school kids are different, each with different gifts, abilities and challenges.

Some students might have to endure difficult home lives; some might face challenges many of us can only imagine. Those challenges will affect performance.

Public education is the only institution that has to educate all children. Teachers should be able to focus on helping children become what God intended for them to become rather than just pushing for a high test score. How do we quantify when a teacher goes above and beyond the call of duty to help a student work through obstacles?

Those who support merit pay suggest that competition among teachers for merit pay dollars would improve performance. I do not believe that would happen. The real competition will be for high performing students – those who test well and, as a result, give the impression one teacher might be better than another.

We can, and we must, do better by our children and those to whom we entrust them – our teachers. We hear a lot about “no child left behind”; merit pay increases the chance that children who test poorly will be left behind as the focus shifts to those students with test scores high enough to boost teachers pay.

So-called “merit pay” plans will not make schools better. Those who advance merit pay hold hostage our teachers’ financial futures and our children’s education just to advance an agenda that is more about looking good than doing good.

Thanks again for reading the “Senate Minute,” have a great week, and may God bless you all.

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