Merit Pay: Sanguine Sardines and Sanctimonious Salesmen

“Obamacare.”  “Government-run.”  “Union.”  “Tenure.”  “Liberal.”  “Progressive.”

These common terms (misused or flat-out fabricated as they may be) have developed powerfully negative connotations.  This is no accident.

Regardless of one’s political affiliation, it is impossible to deny that the conservative side of the isle has an amazing talent for applying connotation to words and then making those words stick in order to promote the conservative agenda.

“Government-run”, for example, has been caustically applied throughout the health care debate.  Yet we hear no cries of “government-run” when discussing our national defense or interstate highway system – both of which actually are government-run.  Standing alone, the term “government-run” carries little meaning yet it has been morphed into a formidable political weapon.

Just as benign words can be converted to weapons, weapons can be hidden within comforting words.  “No Child Left Behind” is a perfect example.  The harm NCLB actually does is irrelevant – the name sells itself, and opposing it is political suicide.

When it comes to manipulating the language of education, today’s education reformers are no sluggards.  They are adept at hiding their weapons behind agreeable-sounding words.  “Innovation”, “proficiency”, “accountability”, and a slew of other nebulous-but-catchy terms permeate today’s reform jargon.  In fact, “reform” itself belongs on the list.

Those who control the language will control the debate and ultimately the direction of change – or lack of change.  Those who truly value public education must resist the language-manipulation efforts of self-proclaimed reformers who have ulterior motives.

Nestled comfortably within education reform jargon is the idea of “pay-for-performance”, or “merit pay.”  Everyone from the Commander in Chief to the sleaziest charter school profiteers talk of paying our best teachers more.  As with “No Child Left Behind”, it’s difficult – politically – to argue against the idea.

The general public easily buys the concept, too.  The makers of “Waiting for Superman” established an online survey asking “should great teachers earn a higher salary?”  Predictably, the online poll shows support for the idea.  But the question is engineered to elicit this response. 

Presented with a “yes/no” question, few will argue that great teachers shouldn’t be paid more.  Would the results be different if the word “great” were replaced with “highly qualified”, “skilled”, or “dedicated”?  Probably not.  What if the word “great” were removed altogether?  Ask anyone – yes or no – if teachers should earn more money, and they will likely say yes. 

But in reality, outside the world of make-believe super-heroes, the practice of “merit pay” isn’t what it’s advertised to be.  “Merit pay” isn’t about paying great teachers more.  It’s about paying a few teachers more – if their students happen to perform well on standardized tests.

Numerous studies demonstrate the poor validity and reliability of evaluating teachers based on students’ standardized test scores.  There are countless variables outside the classroom that influence student achievement. Thus, the so-called “merit pay” does not actually reward “merit” or “performance” in any real way. 

The makers of “Waiting for Superman” are trying to fabricate public support for “merit pay” schemes.  But when people really understand what they’re being asked, they tend not to support it.  A recent poll in New Jersey, for example, shows a strong majority oppose Governor Christie’s plan for linking teacher pay to student test scores.

“Merit pay”, “pay-for-performance”, whatever the name, is not about paying excellent teacher more. It’s about manipulating language to promote an anti-public-school agenda.  We cannot allow such manipulation to succeed.  We must all – always – name the “merit pay” concept for what it really is: “pay for test scores.”

Having done that, we must then expose the “pay-for-test-scores” scheme for what it really is:  a distraction from the fact that all teachers are under-paid and our politicians are unwilling to rectify the problem. 

“Reformers” who seek to privatize education for corporate profit also benefit from this distraction – public funding has proven insufficient for both professional salaries and corporate profits.  “Merit pay” schemes are the perfect decoy to hide the practice of paying most teachers less and then pocketing the difference.

In the education-reform world of language manipulation, “merit pay” is the ultimate sanguine sardine for sanctimonious salesmen.

Comments (6)

  1. The one thing that I don’t hear any of these reformers talking about is starting pay. It’s the low starting salary that keeps a lot of people from even considering teaching. And with student debt loads growing, I don’t know how most graduates could even consider it now.

  2. People use these terms and simple ideas because they really don’t care all that much. They want neat, simple answers. They don’t want to hear that the issues we face every day are complicated. They don’t want to hear about all the different variables. They don’t want to have to think much about education at all, and that’s the problem. That’s always been the problem. Quick, expedient answers are the American way.

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  4. I teach elementary strings. There is no standardized test for elementary strings. To what test scores will my “test score pay” be linked? Or am I just SOL? These morons never think of half the problems that will come up with their brilliant ideas.

  5. Pingback: Where’s MY Bonus? More Twisted Language From Ed “Reformers” | Edvoices

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