seniority & nepotism
Lisa – I should clarify my thoughts on both merit pay and seniority.
Regarding merit pay, I agree with you and a number of commenters here that it is very difficult to accurately measure a teacher’s success, especially when you start using standardized tests to measure the success of English or Art teachers (though they make a good deal more sense for Math and Science). All the other arguments apply as well: parents and economic factors are easily more important to the average kids educational success than a teacher ever will be – though it has also been fairly well documented that good teachers can have a tremendous impact on students’ lives.
All that being said, it strikes me as rather unimaginative for us to simply say “We can’t measure success because it’s so complicated, let’s just base everything on length of service.”
One problem with this approach is that teachers are notoriously difficult to get rid of, even if they’re pretty abominably bad. This is not true everywhere, but it’s certainly true where unions have a great deal of sway over the school system. That’s not even meant as a broadside against unions – it’s just a fact of life.
In some industries it makes sense to say, if you’ve stuck it out with Company A for 20 years, you’re probably doing good work for Company A. You deserve promotions, raises, and all that jazz. Companies that promote from within are generally viewed as companies which are taking the long-view. But most private-sector companies are able to fire bad employees long before they reach the 20 year mark.
This is not the case for public school teachers. In public education, seniority is not a marker of teaching acumen or any inherent skill or success, but rather the ability of someone to stick to a job for a very long time. Either that or the inability of any of their bosses to fire them. Such tenacity might be a sign of a very good teacher, loyal to her school and her students, or it might be a sign of a broken system.
Who can tell?
That’s the trick we run into when discussing both seniority and merit pay. Making seniority a part of the whole evaluation package rather than the entire package is one such move. It should definitely factor in to decisions like raises, layoffs, etc. but it should not be the only factor.
Merit pay is a tricky issue, because for many subjects it’s very hard to gauge success, and the tools used to do so can have a really pernicious effect on how teachers teach. Standardized tests, teaching to tests – these things are, in my opinion, anathema to a quality education. Autonomy for teachers and the freedom to experiment, change things up, and have fun with education (and tailor it to various students’ needs) is vital. It’s also hard to measure.
One idea I’ve had is making the administrator more accountable for his schools’ success, and making the community more responsible for how that success is measured. Then the administrator could give out bonuses to teachers who really were doing a good job. This would keep everything closer to ground zero. Of course then you open the doors to nepotism, favoritism, and various other abuses.
Then again, if loyalty is your thing, then maybe a little nepotism here and there isn’t such a bad idea…?