Teacher Evaluation + Student Test Scores + Merit Pay = Controversy

Author Disclaimer
A combination of President Obama's State of the Union Address, an NPR broadcast this week, and the ongoing debate in the media motivated me to write this particular post. It's a tough topic, but I'm going to attempt to tackle it with as much grace as possible. Please feel free to comment at the end and share your thoughts.

The State of Education
President Obama made an impassioned call for education reform in his State on the Union Address on Wednesday, January 27.

Now, this year, we've broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. And the idea here is simple: Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform -- reform that raises student achievement; inspires students to excel in math and science; and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to the inner city.

For many, this kind of reform means that teacher evaluation should include consideration of student test scores and even merit pay.

NPR Tackles the Issue
On Tuesday, January 26, NPR's show, On Point, broadcast a 30 minute interview (click here to listen) with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the number two teacher professional organization in the United States. She made a speech to the National Press club (click here to read the entire speech) in which she suggested innovation in teacher evaluation is needed. She is willing to consider student test scores as part of this discussion, but only in the context of the bigger picture. Here is an excerpt of her speech:

Classroom observations, self-evaluations, portfolio reviews, appraisal of lesson plans, and all the other tools we use to measure student learning—written work, performances, presentations and projects—should also be considered in these evaluations. Student test scores based on valid and reliable assessments should ALSO be considered—NOT by comparing the scores of last year’s students with the scores of this year’s students, but by assessing whether a teacher’s students show real growth while in his classroom.

In addition to these ideas from her speech, of course, merit pay was a consideration in the NPR broadcast, too. It's a tough topic. A few comments made me think. A few made me angry. A few made me question my own opinion. Here are some of the stand-outs:

Advanced Placement v. Special Education
Should a teacher who teaches AP be financially rewarded for teaching the brightest of the bright over a special needs teacher who teachers students with a variety of IEPs?
How do you measure success & achievement in a student and then in a teacher? Does the teacher working in an upper class neighborhood have the same challenges as those in the inner city? Do students always ‘click’ at the same time? Shouldn’t teachers be encouraged to develop students who are lifetime learners rather than great test takers?

Math and Science in a Global Society
I think that AP science and math teachers should make more than special ed teachers. While both types of teachers are needed, we need to attract top teachers in science and math so our best students can compete with those of China and India.

Public Schools v. Private Schools
Behaviorism, cognitive learning theory, open-concept schools, forced integration, back-to-basics, No Child Left Behind (I could go on) — each was supposed to revolutionize education. Teachers talk a good game. But the real innovation is happening in non-public schools, where the educators actually believe in something.

A Teacher Who Believes in Merit Pay
I am a teacher who agrees with the idea of merit pay. However, I don’t think that a teacher’s merit has anything to do with the subject they teach. In fact, I have taught both special ed and regular ed students and I think my best teaching practices were developed in the special ed classroom, where I had to differentiate instruction in order to meet my students at a variety of levels. I think we should reward teachers for the amount of work and innovation that they do, not the outcomes of their students. Yes, teaching is an important job, but I don’t think we can measure a teacher’s efficacy solely based on the tests their students take. Kids today face lots of risks that impede with their learning. The real question for me is, if merit pay is implemented, how is merit going to be measured?

Test Scores and Student Accountability
I am a high school teacher and I don’t really know where to begin. I have taught for 16 years and for each of those years I have jumped through every hoop that anyone has set for me in the hopes of improving test scores. Unfortunately, test scores tell us absolutely nothing about the ability of our teachers. And, until students are held accountable in some way for the outcome of these tests, scores will never reflect the true academic abilities of our students.

Other Ideas From Around the Internet in the Past Year
Here are some other articles I found on teacher evaluation, test scores, and merit pay.
Obama's Education Push Includes Merit Pay - Wall Street Journal 3/11/2009
Report Points to Risks of Merit Pay for Teachers - Education Week 5/14/2009
President Obama, Please Think About Merit Pay for Teachers While Your Shave - Dan Willingham 6/1/2009
Willingham made this video about merit pay, too.

Younger Teachers Favor Merit Pay
- eGFI 11/16/2009
Education Secretary Arne Duncan Says Merit Pay Should be Tied to Student Growth - US News & World Report 12/15/2009
Do Teacher Merit Pay Programs Work? - CBS News 1/6/2010
Merit Pay For Good Teachers, But Fire Bad Teachers, New Jersey Voters Tell Quinnipiac University Poll - Quinnipiac University 1/21/2010

What Are Your Thoughts?
There are many more comments on the NPR website and the callers on the show made their own interesting arguments. I encourage you to read the comments and, if you have time, listen to the broadcast too. I'd love to read your ideas and any responses you have to these controversial opinions.


  1. The wide net you cast in this post makes it both thoughtfully stimulating and hard to swallow. Just like our classrooms, the dynamics presented are complex and ever changing requiring action in ways that are not right in every instance.

    As a science teacher I am of course drawn to the comment regarding math and science in the global society. Of my graduating geosciences class at UMass in 2006, I was the sole student entering the education field. My choice was driven by a personal calling, but for many science ugrads the lure (particularly with student loans in tow) of higher pay ceilings down the road certainly diminishes the interest in entering the education field.

    The future of science education in this nation eats at me frequently as I think about many of my colleagues in masters science ed classes who were not well rehearsed in science but were shooting to become one because "there is higher demand." If science education is being taught primarily by those who see the challenge of job placement in their previous field as too great... then ultimately what does that say about science education? It says to me that something has to disrupt the current trend.

  2. You should take part in a contest for one of the best blogs on the web. I will recommend this site! GCC WEB HOSTING

  3. Teaching requires a liking towards profession and passion too. If we talk about infrastructure then a teacher is the fundamental and primary need of any education system whether it is for regular teaching or special education. Yes, I too agree that we should reward teachers for the amount of work and innovation that they do, not the outcomes of their students. Test scores tell us very little about the ability of the teachers. Timely feedback for students is very crucial and a plan to tackle students' shortcomings must be there. Teachers need to write an effective after-lesson report for this. But, there are many intangible parameters like how teachers keep motivated students for learning, the way they inculcate moral values into them and make learning stress-free and joyful that matters a lot than mere good test results. Thanks for sharing such a thoughtful post.


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