February 11, 2005

Test Scores Must Not Underpin Merit Pay for California Teachers

By Donal Brown
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE


SAN FRANCISCO — If done right, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal for merit pay for teachers can improve education in the state. But if the money goes to districts with high-achieving students, the state will miss an opportunity to meet the federal standard for providing each student with a credentialed, qualified teacher.

Schwarzenegger wants to reward teachers not by their educational level or years of service but by their ability to “impart knowledge” and turn out high-achieving students. But if the yardstick to measure merit is only students’ test scores, inevitably merit pay would go primarily where it is least needed: to teachers with the easiest jobs in advantaged schools.

Advantaged schools are in communities with well-off, highly educated parents. These schools can conduct annual fund-raisers that may garner as much as $1 million to pay for teachers in foreign languages, music and art, as well as librarians, counselors and classroom aides who would otherwise suffer the budget axe. Teachers at these schools are already among the highest paid in the state, so these schools have no problem attracting teachers.

Disadvantaged schools in rural and urban communities, on the other hand, are more likely to teach the children of immigrants and others whose parents are poor and marginally educated. In addition, immigrant students may have trouble with English. By the 2007-08 school year, English will be the second language for one-fourth of California’s students. These children require patience and extra attention, and by their test scores may not qualify their teachers for merit pay.

It is children from disadvantages backgrounds who lack qualified teachers. Currently, to get teachers for these students, many districts are hiring young people fresh out of college to teach under emergency credentials. Urban districts particularly have had success attracting bright, young people of color. But 30 percent of these teachers of color are gone in three years, and 70 percent in five years. By targeting some form of monetary incentive to these teachers — call it differential pay, or a new form of merit pay — the state is more likely to retain them.

Under Schwarzenegger’s plan, who would want to enter the teaching profession to teach resistant students from impoverished backgrounds, knowing that their performance will be measured mainly by their students’ achievement? A teacher in a city school once told me that only a fourth of his students showed up each day. I said that he could achieve something with that fourth. No, he said, it’s a different fourth each day. Teachers who teach in rural schools with children of migrant workers also face difficult odds.

There is no shortage of qualified teachers in California. There are 1.3 million credentialed teachers in the state, and 300,000 jobs. Merit pay for the toughest districts would attract some of these people into the profession so that districts would have to hire fewer teachers with emergency credentials.

Schwarzenegger plays down teacher preparation and educational level, but studies show that teachers without practice teaching do not do as well as those with it. Studies also show that in general, teachers holding advanced degrees in the subjects they teach are more effective.

Schwarzenegger wants to bring hard-nosed Republican principles of industry and accountability to education. He can promote those principles in a smarter and more effective way.

First, he needs to increase salaries for all of California’s teachers. According to a RAND Corp. study released in January, California’s salaries when adjusted for purchasing power are below the national average.

Next, Schwarzenegger could use merit pay to increase the supply of teachers for schools with the toughest assignments, the poorest equipment, the most run-down classrooms and the most reluctant or challenged students. He might also improve education by providing merit pay to teachers of special ed, math and science and other subjects lacking qualified teachers.

And finally, he must strengthen existing in-service training programs to give new teachers in challenging assignments the support and know-how to survive.

Merit pay will probably go down as another grandstanding political gambit abandoned as Schwarzenegger tallies the costs of coming up with a workable plan and paying the teachers. It would certainly require new taxes. But if the money can somehow be found, merit pay, done properly, could improve education and boost teacher-morale in a state with low pay and frustrating teaching conditions.

Donal Brown taught in California’s public schools for 35 years.

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