First Person

Testing the Murky Waters of Merit Pay, With Mixed Results

Last spring I took a position as English department chair at a New York City independent school, giving me a chance to work in the city after many years in suburban schools. The head of my new school told me that he and the board planned to launch a performance-based compensation system and asked me to help administer it. Like many teachers, I object to being paid based on student test scores, but after learning that wasn’t the plan at my new school, I found myself intrigued.

I admit it: I believe in merit pay, performance-based compensation, or whatever you want to call it. I’ve been in education too long not to be frustrated with the lock-step salary system: No matter how hard a teacher works, she’s paid the same as everyone else who started the same year she did and has the same number of postgraduate credits she does. While no one goes into teaching for the money, we’re also not volunteers. And why shouldn’t great teachers make more than mediocre ones?

So in I jumped, working with a formula that the department chairs, grade leaders, and heads of the secondary and primary schools had created. We made classroom observations and assessed each teacher’s collegiality, commitment, and participation in activities outside the classroom.  Teachers were scored 1 to 4 in 20 different categories. The categories were weighted, producing final scores that fell into four ranges. Teachers who fell into three of the ranges would — when the plan went into full effect — receive bonuses.

Good thing it turned out to be a pilot program. We made some mistakes; we learned a lot; and we saw hope for the future.

What went wrong:

  • The logistics: The formula required two supervisors to be present for each class visit. Scheduling this was staggering.
  • The timetable: In an effort to come up with a score for each teacher by the time contracts for next year were distributed, the visits, post-visit conferences, and final scoring had to be completed by February. The rush was terrible, and both teachers and supervisors felt the process was over with the year just past the halfway mark.
  • The language: The mechanism used to assess the class visits and other categories scored the teachers 1 through 4, with 3 and 4 being “meets expectations” and “exceeds expectations.” When the scores were tallied and the coefficients applied, each teacher received a final score of 1 to 4. A quirk in the formula meant that some teachers who had received nothing lower than a 3 in any category received a 2 overall, which was described as not quite meeting expectations.
  • The chatter: I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised when the teachers shared their scores with each other. Despite the administration’s reassurance that everyone receiving a score of 2 to 4 was in the bonus range, conversation in the faculty lounge was angry and resentful.

What went well:

  • This first year was a pilot program, so we have a chance to fix our mistakes before money is at stake.
  • The goal was to reward teachers, rather than punish them.
  • The department chairs and other administrators have gone back to the drawing board to tweak — if not completely redesign — the formula and adjust the timetable.
  • The board decided to pay out performance-based compensation in the form of a bonus, rather than adjust the pay scale. This suggests a fluid system that will adjust to the talents, needs, and desires of the community — including the board — rather than the other way around.

What we’re working on:

  • The purpose and shape of the class visit: Is the goal of an observation to help a teacher improve or to assess a teacher’s practice at a single moment? At this international school the European faculty’s expectations for classroom observations are quite different from the American faculty’s. The Europeans are used to outside examiners doing a one-shot observation. The Americans expect more give and take, feedback in the form of suggestions for improvement, and second and third visits if necessary. As the single American department chair, I am in favor of unannounced observations. The European department chairs think teachers would mutiny if the observations were unannounced. We are still working on compromises.
  • What exemplary practice looks like: The formula we are developing does a pretty good of describing what it means to meet expectations. Do we have to paint a picture of what it looks like to exceed expectations? Or is that vision also partly the responsibility of the teacher?
  • Language: We need something other than 1-4 (Bluebirds, Canaries, Egrets, and Robins, perhaps?) for the final categories. I’m embarrassed at how much we underestimated the faculty’s sensitivity to the numbers and labels we used.

The successes give me hope that a fair, well-organized and compassionate performance-based compensation system is possible.

But if there is a teacher at my school in favor of performance-based compensation, he or she has yet to make that opinion public. And I think that’s a pity. It breaks my heart to listen to teachers who received final scores of 3s and 4s talk about how the system is terrible for morale. How can it be good for anyone’s morale to know you’re being paid the same as a person who received a 1? (For the record, there were very, very few 1s.)

This coming year the stakes will be higher because teachers will receive an end-of-year bonus based on their score. I hope we will iron out the kinks in the formula, that teachers will begin to notice that the system is encouraging rather than punitive, and that morale will improve as teachers feel rewarded for going above and beyond, or even just for being very good at their jobs.

What would it take to make a performance-based pay scheme work in the public schools? Tying bonuses or pay scales to test scores is the easy and cheap path, but I believe teachers will and should fight that plan with everything they’ve got. It takes hard work and experimentation, but at my school we’re on the verge of developing a system that takes into account a wide range of teaching skills and practices, not just outcomes. Having seen what it took to muddle through a pilot year in a small independent school makes me wonder if a large public system has the heart — or the resources — to develop a way to reward the good teachers, the ones who give and give and give, the ones who nurture their students, inspire their colleagues, and who would do it with or without merit pay.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk