By Francisco Gonzalez, JMI Development Director
Recent dinner table discussions with my aunt, who is a public school teacher in Miami, included the topic of “merit pay” for teachers, which was passed by the Florida Legislature last year and ultimately vetoed by then-Governor Charlie Crist. My aunt told me she was against merit pay. Strangely enough, we agree on almost all other issues of the day so it puzzled me. Why, on this particular issue, would we have such a large gap in our thinking?I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt–after all, she’s the one who has been in the classroom every day for the past fifteen years or so. But then I started noticing her train of thought: she seemed to be repeating the teachers union’s talking points. Maybe this was a coincidence. Or, maybe the teacher’s unions are fairly representing what actual teachers like my aunt believe. Or, maybe it’s the other way around–maybe the only information my aunt is getting on this issue is from the teachers union. I didn’t press that matter with her, but I did get a sense that those of us who believe in merit pay need to adequately address teachers’ concerns in order to win the argument on this issue.Her concerns were mostly centered on teachers being judged solely on their students’ test results. For example, my aunt teaches ESOL students–students whose native language is Spanish and thus unlikely to do as well on the same tests as native English speakers. Naturally, she feels that if she has language-disadvantaged students predisposed to not testing as well as average students (and not nearly as well as gifted students), her pay – maybe even her entire job – might be nixed if compared to other teachers with average or above average students. Then there is the whole standardized testing debate.But merit pay isn’t based solely on testing–it’s just one of many factors. Merit pay, as constructed by the Florida Legislature, is also based on localized evaluations of teachers by their peers, department heads, and by parents. Only those closest to the individual teachers know their environment – and with that knowledge, they can more accurately evaluate the teachers. Experience certainly counts for something as well, but it’s not everything.Students deserve to have as high quality of a teacher as possible. Most teachers aren’t motivated solely by pay increases—most will tell you they got into the profession to help young people learn. But everyone likes to be properly rewarded for their hard work. Good teachers like my aunt deserve to be rewarded just as much as bad teachers ought to be reprimanded or ultimately removed.As we go forward in discussing the value of merit pay, policymakers need to keep in mind the individual teachers. What can we do to make their experience better? How can we counter the misinformation they are being fed every day by teacher’s unions, the media, and others? These forces create an atmosphere hostile to the change that is needed in our education system—we must counteract their effect so that our students can achieve greater results and learn to compete with their peers around the world.