Wednesday, January 22, 2014

This Has Merit

One of the ways our esteemed current governor, Tom Corbett, intends to bring the drowning School District of Philadelphia out of its financial and educational disaster  smash the teacher’s union is by insisting on merit pay. I certainly do not see what merit pay will do to increase test scores, provide funds or decrease spending. If anything, it seems to me that merit pay will only increase the need for additional funds. You will have to pay the “good” teachers more, right? Maybe he doesn’t think there ARE many good teachers in the city schools. But I digress. Let me speak for a bit on the test scores and the new Common Core strategies which are being foisted on teachers.


There are in fact, many good teachers in the Philly public schools. You may not realize that by the test scores of the students though. Test scores show one thing – how that child was able to answer 70-140 multiple choice questions on a test that they must do entirely on their own. There is no help allowed from the teacher on even reading directions, or clarifying them. Doing that would constitute cheating on the Reading PSSA test. Reading selections are done “cold,” that is, without the usual vocabulary and background knowledge instruction that goes on in the classroom before reading a narrative or non-fiction account.


Many children have very limited experience in situations outside their own little neighborhood. Most poor kids in Philadelphia have no idea what the beach is like, or a farm, and how life in those environs is very different from their own. A story set on a farm assumes that you know that seeds are sown and pollinated, crops are fertilized, grown, and then are harvested. Vegetables just don’t appear in the supermarket. Animals must be fed, doctored, and protected, and are not just let out in the yard. A simple third grade book such as Sarah, Plain and Tall needs the background of the settlement of the West, homesteading, and the role of women in the society at that time, in order to appreciate what is going on. You can see, therefore how a poor, inner-city student will not do as well on reading selections where they have no prior knowledge.


Both reading and math scores are counted in determining scores in the standardized tests. The powers-that-be addressed the disparity of the scores in rich and poor districts by coming up with the Value-Added Measurement (VAM), a mathematical formula, which supposedly evens the playing field That VAM has me really confused. How does one put into a mathematical formula the differences between rich and poor, minority and majority, high and low scorers, and come up with a formula that indicates whether a teacher is good or not without ever having entered their classroom? VAM scores have been statistically shown to have an error rate of up to 25%. So if you get a score of 50% effective, theoretically you could be either 25% or 75% effective.


A 25% error rate in a VAM score for a teacher could mean the difference between working or getting fired. This actually happened in Washington DC, where 40 teachers were unceremoniously let go before it was discovered that their VAM scores were in reality, higher than necessary to keep their jobs.


Another problem with VAM scores to judge teacher effectiveness and consequently, merit pay, is that the students are being measured on the improvement from one year’s test to the next year’s test. If the tests contained the same test items, you could truly say whether the student improved. But different things are learned in different grades and you are comparing apples to oranges in many cases. In addition, some areas of testing consist of only 1 or 2 questions on the 70-question test. How can your knowledge of a concept be based on only 1 question?


Although the VAM formula was invented to fairly compare the differences between high and low poverty schools, so much more indicates whether a teacher is good enough to get merit pay or not. All through school I got high marks, not necessarily because of my teachers and sometimes despite the teachers. My parents pushed for me to do my best always, stayed interested in what we were learning, provided for my health issues in a timely manner, kept a stable environment in the home. My mother was a stay-at-home mother, as were most in those days, who believed that doing your best in school would get you into a good college. My siblings and I were the first in our parents’ families to have a realistic chance to go to college, so we were prodded to do well.


A child in my class whose parents had no expectations of their children going to college, pushed their children to “just make sure you pass.” Which child is going to do better? If we had the same teacher, how would you grade how effective she is? Today’s children are no different. Kids whose parents prod them to do well, usually do. Those who are indifferent usually have indifferent children where school success is concerned. What about the performance of the pupil whose parent has just been deployed to a war zone? Or had a family member recently meet a violent death? Or was a pawn in a messy divorce? Or whose house just burned down? Or whose classmate was killed in a drive-by shooting? Who do you blame for that child not scoring well on the standardized test? How do you put those values in that instructor’s VAM?


And then there is the issue of poverty and the disparities between the richer and poorer school districts. If I were to teach high school in Lower Merion, I would teach in a state-of-the-art school, with state-of-the-art computers, a huge library, 7 counselors, and a student body of 1200, many who lack for nothing. While just 10 miles away, a Philly school of 4000 students has 2 counselors, no library, old computers, and not enough books for everyone. If you go by scores on the PSSA, which kids do you think would score better? Would that lead you to conclude that Lower Merion teachers were better than Philly teachers? 




Really, there are better ways to judge a teacher’s effectiveness and reward excellent teachers. While we don’t get paid too well, we didn’t go into teaching for the salary. What we value more than money is respect shown for our profession in the form of: 1) buildings that are safe, clean, and equipped for the 21st century; 2) enough personnel in the school to give the troubled children the time and attention they need and deserve; 3) the autonomy to deliver the curriculum in the way that our students need it delivered, not tying us down to one scripted method that doesn’t work and is boring; 4) time to plan, with our faculty, the best methods for raising the educational expectations of the school; 5) class sizes that are reasonable for the amount of attention our students need to have in order to succeed; and 6) most importantly perhaps, recognition that we know what works for our students better than an economist putting all our “worth” into a mathematical formula.



And how to decide whom to reward? Actually, a combination of principal and actual teachers should observe the class in order to judge effectiveness. And if a teacher is judged to be not-so-effective, figure out what they must do in order to become better teachers. If they are terrible, let them go. If they are not-so-effective, give them the opportunity to strengthen their teaching. In this way, “churn,” or teacher turnover, would be way less and pupils would have the benefit of a teacher staying in the school. One who is familiar with them and with the school’s culture, and has their trust.


In short, many teachers in the Philly schools are meritorious teachers, who come early, stay late, work hard at providing students with a myriad of learning opportunities, and keep the interest of the kids. They come day after day, knowing the hardships both they and their students will have to endure in poorly-staffed, inadequately funded schools. These teachers never give up and give 150% every day. These are teachers of merit, but not according to their students’ test scores. It’s just not right.


Merit pay is an idea whose time has come and gone.

Here a couple of easy-to-understand article about VAM, with suggestions for other ways to evaluate teacher effectiveness.

For even more proof of merit pay’s shortcomings, read here:




Still learning!


  1. I spent the day at your old neighborhood school. Yesterday was a snow day and while Philadelphia was working on the clean-up today, the city couldn't change the freezing temperatures so attendance was down. Instead of 28-30 students per classroom, class size was averaging 15-18 students and it made a world of difference for the teaching-learning environment. The governor ought to spend a day with a classroom filled to the maximum and then spend a day with the same class but with 25% fewer students and he will see that he will get more learning for his money if teachers have the opportunity to teach in a manageable classroom environment.

    1. Absolutely true. Class as use makes a big difference. Glad to hear you are back there. I miss your smiling face