BC Liberal leadership hopeful promises teacher merit pay

The Globe and Mail’s Justine Hunter has written a column today about “right leaning” BC Liberal leadership hopeful, Kevin Falcon’s promise that, if elected BC Liberal leader, he would institute merit pay for teachers.  In principle, I agree with such an idea.  But Falcon needs to clearly explain how teaching excellence would be defined, who would be doing the defining and what type of “merit” model would be used.

Teaching Excellence

For example, Hunter quotes Annie Kidder of Ontario’s People for Education, as saying: “I have a problem with the underlying idea of the notion that if you pay teachers more, you do better work.” Well, I can see Kidder’s point of view. A job is a job. Everyone should do their best and get equal pay for doing it. Right? 

Then, how come so many taxpayers are complaining about a decline in provincial academic standards — a view that is completely consistent with recent OECD international test results. Those results indicated, for instance, that Canada had dropped from 7th place in reading skills in 2006 to 10th in 2009? Oh yes, I know that some provincial premiers tried to spin that decrease as good news (e.g, Ontario’s McGuinty), but it was not. Check out this discussion at EduChatter to read what I mean.   

The Teachers’ Union “Learning Conditions”

Then, there is the teachers’ union point of view which is predictable and about as anti-reform as you can get. Susan Lambert, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation apparently said: “It’s [merit pay] a destructive idea that doesn’t bode well for public education….The way you foster excellence in teaching is providing sufficient resources to the system so there are tenable learning conditions.”

Ah yes, merit pay is a destructive idea. Rather, simply spend more money to improve “learning conditions” and you will get excellence. Bah humbug! Didn’t we hear that refrain during the 1997 Ontario teachers’ strike — teaching conditions are learning conditions!

So, just what are learning conditions anyway? More desks? Larger classrooms? More listening and reading centre supplies? No, the conditions Ms. Lambert — and all other provincial teachers’ unions talk about — is code for more money for higher teachers salaries.

Now, given how high teachers’ salaries already are, we are never really told just how spending more will improve student outcomes. Well, they obviously can’t. Such a notion is just plain union spin and self-serving twaddle.   

What teaching excellence looks like

Now, here is where the rubber hits the road. All practising and retired teachers know that some teachers work harder than others. It’s simply human nature and would be the same in any profession. But, that is the problem with unions. They want to treat everyone equally in order to be fair but in actual fact it is not fair because, if they don’t acknowledge those who slack off, they also don’t acknowledge those who go the extra mile. As a result, what we end up with is mediocrity throughout the entire system.

Excellence in the real world

The problem is that mediocrity is not how the real world operates. Years ago, before he went on to graduate work, my brother was employed as a radio announcer for a private BC radio station. I still remember him telling me that there was a sign on the wall, directly in front of his mic,  that read: “Be good or be gone.” That’s what the private sector expects and that is what the education system should expect as well. Figure out what is excellence and then reward everyone, from students to teachers, for doing outstanding work.

Potential problems with merit pay policies

All that said, there are major problems with the notion of merit pay that need to be dealt with. For example:

  • Would it be based on student evaluations or student marks? If so, you could be looking at a popularity contest —  not excellence — unless the teacher stayed after school to help struggling students improve their grades. Because, without that one-on-one attention, few students would give a teacher a high evaluation for low marks or hard work?  
  • Would it be based on parent comments? Well, if a parent didn’t like the teacher or felt the teacher’s standards were too high, that could be a major problem. And, while parents certainly understand their children better than anyone else, they don’t know how they behave in class — such as whether or not they pay attention and/or finish assignments.
  • Would it be based only on the say-so of a principal or area superintendent? And, therein lies some huge potential problems related to internal politics and teaching philosophy. For instance, one principal might rate desks in rows and quiet children as an example of excellent while another may rate the opposite approach as excellent. In other words, teacher evaluation is not uniform, no matter how much non-teachers think it is. Should that be used as an excuse? Definitely not. Just that there are philosophical differences requiring a give and take whenever a teacher is evaluated.
  • A points model for providing merit pay that would be fair  

    However, there is a fair way that school boards and school districts could provide teacher merit pay — what I will call a “points system.” For example, when I taught at the post-secondary level a minimum full-time teaching load was between 120 and 140 points.

    Note, however, that is only one third of an academic’s job. There is also one third for community service and one third for research and scholarly writing.  However, let’s use the 120-140 points as the case in point.

    There were 20 points to teach half courses and 40 points to teach full courses. There were also points for student supervision (for thesis or independent course projects) — 3 points for projects and 6 points when it involved a thesis committee and final defence.  Therefore, an instructor could teach three full-credit courses and meet the minimum 120 points. Or, they could teach one full credit, three half credits and supervise several students doing independent work.

    As might be expected, some professors worked for the 120 points because there were those twenty points that was unpaid overtime. In other words, if your points added up to 135 or 140, you got the same pay as when you worked for 120 hours. However,  if your work load went that 140 hours (even by only a few points), the reward was significant.

    For example, I knew many academics who regularly worked between 150-160 points a semester because students wanted them to supervise their independent work — meaning they might work with upwards of ten or even twenty students. But, it was completely fair because it was the professors who made a conscious choice — to do the extra work.  

    Now, doing extra work or supervision doesn’t tell us anything about how well someone teaches, but the reality is that university students do not seek out professors who are doing a lousy job.  

    So, if politicians and education officials at the elementary or secondary levels wanted to suggest a similar fair and objective point system, it could work. How?

    • Teachers willing to coach? 3-6 points. 
    • Willing to supervise lunch hour chess or art clubs? 3-6 points.
    • Arrive at school a half hour earlier than everyone else — and be seen actually working in their classroom as opposed to drinking coffee in the staff room — extra points.
    • Willing to take a class trip?
    • Visit a museum? More points.

    So, just as with the university professors, how can a school board be sure the teachers who do all those extra activities are excellent and worthy of merit pay? Easy!  Because, it will be the excellent teachers who volunteer to do extra work — even if they are not doing so now.

    Something to think about.

End-of-the-year thank you to teachers!

At this time of year it is a good time to honour classroom teachers. As I wrote not too long ago, Prime Minister Harper recently honoured them as well. They are dumped on by the public so much of the time for the problems within the system, their accreditation bodies, their union leadership and the various provincial government’s — all situations beyond their control or influence.

What they can influence, however, are the children in their care — in loco parentis — in place of the parents. Like parents, they love children and they want only the best for them. And, yes, in spite of two months vacation every summer, teachers work very hard. For all those who complain that they work just as hard, that may be true. But, that shouldn’t take away from the dedication and commitment most teachers have for their jobs.

And, contrary to popular opinion, most teachers do not have two months off in the summer. Both my husband and I had to complete our university and graduate degrees during that period — all so we would be better teachers.

So, for today, let’s look at what teachers do in the life of our children and grandchildren. Think about it. Children spend most of their day — and young lives — with their peers and their teachers, not with their parents. As a result, the affect those teachers have on their outlook on life is tremendous.

What is nice is that at this time of year, most people put aside all their grievances with the “education system” and think of individual teachers. It is the time, as Moira MacDonald writes, when parents and their children frantically look for just the right thank you card or end-of-the-year gift — a gift that is personal enough to show that the child and his or her parents really do appreciate all the teachers have done during the year.    

One teacher I have been following this year is a high school English teacher. He has his own blog called “The Lamppost.”  Take a visit to his blog. He obviously stretches his students to the max to cover not only current affairs, but the classics — literature and philosophy both. He is an example of how dedicated teachers can be and I know there are many more out there in the blogosphere that I have missed.

To teachers everywhere, thank you. And, if you got another collection of thank you “mugs” this week, just start another shelf. Each one will remind you how important you are in the life of the children you teach.

H/T to Cathy Cove for MacDonald’s column.