Northern Valley Beacon

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Monday, June 19, 2006


South Dakota proposes plan to keep teachers out of the state

The latest scheme to do something about South Dakota's ranking as the lowest in teacher pay harks back to the ante-bellum south. Gov. Rounds and his resident educational suck, Melmer, propose to categorize teachers as house niggers, field niggers, and all-around niggers and create a pay differential on how well ol' massa likes them.

Currently, pay differentials are based upon upgraded education, years of service, and in some cases evaluations by peers and adminstrators.

If the new plan, covered today in the Argus Leader and posted on the Kremlin home page from Pierre, goes into effect, why would anyone want to teach in South Dakota? Why would knowledgeable parents send their kids to school there?

Here is a piece on merit pay we did last November:

Governor Rounds is proposing to do something about South Dakota's perennial ranking as paying its teachers the lowest in the nation by raising the spectre of merit pay. In the last 20 years, there is an abundance of data to show that merit pay does not work and precisely why it does not work.

I once believed in it. Merit pay seems so logical and so fair. People who do the best work should get the highest pay. As a faculty negotiator, I helped design and implement a merit system. I was proud of it. I had put immense amounts of work into it. Consequently, I was one of the last people to admit to the fact that there is no way merit pay can work. I was often called upon as a consultant and adjudicator for other systems that were trying to implement the concept. It took years of trying to fine-tune the concept, until I was forced to look at the data and the havoc it created at schools throughout the nation.

The first premise of merit pay that is wrong is that a faculty (or any other group of workers) can be ranked from the best performers to the worst. While there are a few people with natural gifts that make them appear very good at their jobs and while there are a few who are miserable, 95 percent of the teachers on a faculty work hard, are effective, and produce equal results. They have different strengths and weaknesses, but intelligent, mature teachers learn to use their strengths and improve their weak areas. In deciding merit pay, people are forced to compare apples with oranges with avocados with tomatoes with potatoes with orchids, and on and on. Merit is not as easy to determine as we like to think. Every teacher thinks he/she is doing a superior job and deserves merit. Ninety-five percent of them, usually more, are right.

Here are the points on which merit fails, as noted in experiences of the last 20 years:

I can tell a multitude of tales about my observations. One of the most telling involves a school that was unsually successful in getting students to write at a very high level of performance. The Dakota Writing Project, of which I was a co-director at the time, obtained a grant to refine the school's writing program and use it as a model that other schools could observe and borrow ideas from. The school board, with the concurrence of the faculty, introduced merit. Within a semester, the teachers in the program stopped sharing information. Faculty meetings which had once been a mother lode of useful information turned into silent, resentful ordeals. Within a year, many of the teachers who had been friends tended to avoid any personal or professional contact with each other. When the first merit awards came out, the faculty had such little interest in the program that we had to withdraw the grant funding. At the end of the second year, half of the teachers in the program had found other jobs, mostly outside of teaching. The other half stayed on and did their jobs by avoiding each other. The student writers dropped from being some of the best performing in the state to being among the worst.

Merit pay seems like a great idea. But because it involves designating some people as better than others, it is one of the most destructive programs that can be put into place. Especially in education.

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