Fault Lines in Merit Pay

By Sam Coleman

Illustrator: Richard Downs

Illustration: Richard Downs

Merit pay tried to sneak into my elementary school in Brooklyn one Wednesday in January in the form of a memo in our mailboxes. Merit pay slid into the New York City school system by way of a deal our union made with the city’s education department during the negotiations for the 2005 contract. In return for allowing merit pay into the contract, the union got a 55/25 retirement deal-allowing teachers to collect full benefits beginning at 55 if they have 25 years of service-that it had been wanting for many years. At the time, the merit pay part of the deal was not talked about, at least not to us. When the union reps would come by to tell us about the new contract, only the 55/25 was brought up. Since it sounded so good (and, in fact, I think it is, too), no one asked questions, and the union kept quiet.

Written jointly by the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers, the memo informed us that in one week we would vote as a staff on whether or not to accept the offer of a test-score-based merit pay plan for our school. Though there had been some mention of the issue in local papers, the DoE and the UFT had been quiet about which schools would be the first to be offered merit pay. Our staff was caught totally unprepared to make this decision. Worse, the memo was misleading. Instead of using the term “test score” in order to describe what our school would be judged on, the memo called it a “performance-based” bonus plan.

Two hundred schools this year and then 400 schools next year were being invited to try the merit-pay pilot program. All the schools invited have a low SES demographic; in other words, at least 75 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. In order for a school to opt into the merit-pay plan, 55 percent of the UFT members in the school have to vote to accept it, as stipulated in the UFT contract. The vote allows for the appearance of democracy. However, as in my school, neither the union nor the city’s education department provided anything but a robust recommendation to vote for merit pay and a very short turnaround time. If teachers vote to participate in merit pay, then, in order to receive the bonus pay, they have to ensure that the students in their school meet performance-based goals set by New York City’s Department of Education. Eight-five percent of the goal is based on mass administered standardized tests in language arts and math. The other 15 percent is based on parent surveys and attendance records. The exact goal is totally opaque. It is based on a formula that is not made public. The DoE is using the exact same formula for the merit-pay plan that they used for the school report cards, which involves the school getting points for current test scores and improvement from one year to the next. Nothing else counts, not even the DoE administered quality review (in which a school is evaluated on more pedagogical and environmental factors).

If a school meets its goal, then the school receives $3,000 per UFT member. A committee made up of the principal, an assistant principal, and two teachers elected by the staff divvies up the money. In this program, some teachers could get as much as $10,000 while others get zilch. If the committee decides, it can give money only to those teachers whose students take tests (excluding, for example, all K-2 and most cluster teachers as well as many paras), or only to those teachers whose students did well and brought up the school’s overall numbers. This has the potential to be extremely divisive.

Far from addressing the systemic, institutionalized problems in New York City’s public schools, the city’s test-based pay program attempts to provide a “silver bullet” solution by relying on crass material incentives. The financial incentives are pushed by the Eli Broad and Bill Gates’ “Ed in ’08” initiative, a standards-based plan to improve public education in the United States. Merit pay is one of three planks in their platform. In fact, New York City’s merit pay pilot program is being funded largely by Eli Broad’s foundation. These advocacy groups, bankrolled by corporate giants, are using their wealth to determine public policy thereby sidestepping democracy.

New York City school chancellors, the equivalent of district superintendents, are using the merit pay initiative to claim that they are addressing the achievement gap, without having to actually improve education for low-income students of color. Much like No Child Left Behind, this program is designed to target schools with a high percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch. Merit pay is billed as a way to push teachers and principals to work harder. Insulting insinuation aside, instead of creating educational equity, what the program actually does is force teachers and principals to use time and money to do extra test-prep. Meanwhile, our students’ wealthy counterparts are left with teachers and administrators free to design instruction according to the academic needs of the children.

Serendipitously, the same month the merit-pay memo was placed in our mailboxes, I had joined a new working group of the New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE) focused on fighting high-stakes testing. As an activist group, we had recently decided to fight high-stakes testing by focusing our work on combating merit pay. The merit pay election in my school presented itself as a perfect opportunity to mobilize educators. We received the memo on a Wednesday, and over the weekend, with input from the newly formed group, I wrote up a leaflet detailing the problems with merit pay. On Monday morning, I put the leaflet in all my colleagues’ mailboxes, hoping they would be won over. I argued in my leaflet that there were several reasons to oppose merit pay.

Part of the reason that it was a surprise to our staff was because the offer had already been made to many schools around the city and they had already voted. What we did not know was that about 15 percent of the schools had rejected the offer and we were included in a second round of balloting to try to fill out their numbers. Eventually, my school voted against the plan. A group of teachers recognized the uglier facets to an offer that, at first glance, seemed benign or even beneficial to many of my colleagues. The teachers in my school voted no because: we reject the idea that test scores are the measure of our or the students’ performance; we resented the insinuation that teachers are in the profession for the money and that we would work harder for a few extra dollars; and we were wary of merit pay’s potential divisiveness as distinctions are drawn between who is and who is not helping bring up test scores.

Once the staff at my school began to see the implications, many of my colleagues realized that the moral and ethical issues outweighed the money. There were members of the staff who said that they saw the problems with merit pay but had a mortgage, or kids, or debt and this was simply too much money to say no to (understandable when you look at our salaries against NYC living costs). No one said that they thought that tests were an appropriate measure of excellence in teaching, nor that they felt this would convince us to work harder.

Merit pay came to my elementary school, and in just over a week, we soundly rejected the deal with over 80 percent of the UFT members voting no. For NYCoRE’s working group on high-stakes testing (we go by the name Justice Not Just-Tests) this victory was very encouraging. Since then, we have put together a pamphlet to distribute at schools being offered merit pay. We now have a list of those schools and we are reaching out to teachers in those schools. Every year, each school will have to revote on the issue, and next year there will be 200 new schools added to the current list of 200. We are organizing a campaign to unite across the 400 schools to vote no on merit pay. When next year’s round of votes comes up we hope to stop merit pay in its tracks.

Sam Coleman is a 3rd-grade, dual-language teacher in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. He is in his third year as a New York City public school teacher.