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Shopping at Macy’s is a metaphor for teacher merit pay. Sales associates at Macy’s work on commission. For every item they sell they get X percentage in addition to their base pay. Teacher merit pay (or pay for performance) would provide a teacher with X percentage in addition to their base pay for every one of their students with an acceptable test score.

Macy’s had a holiday sale on menswear. I needed dress pants. I don’t shop for clothes often, so when I do, I linger. I try on, select, try on, select, and so on until I have what I need. My process of selection can be painfully tedious for any salesperson so I usually just go it alone. It is just simpler and more enjoyable for me that way.

At Macy’s a salesperson cordially asked me if I needed help. I asked for directions but declined any additional help. Because of the way I shop I circulated the department several times; so several times passed her area of the department. Each time we would make eye contact and acknowledge each other. She would ask if I needed assistance, I would decline.

When I was ready I happened to be in this salesperson’s area so went to her register. She was helping another customer, so I waited. After ten minutes, another salesperson asked if I needed assistance. I responded that I needed to pay for the items I had selected. He offered to ring me up.

However, before he could do so, the first salesperson came back and politely but firmly said, No. She informed both the second salesperson and me that she had been “helping” me and that she was going to ring up my items. I had to wait another fifteen minutes for her to “help” me while the other salespeople floated around the floor.

The belief that merit pay will create better teachers and better learning environments is wrong. In the incident described, did I receive better service? Was a better shopping experience created for me? Or did the introduction of commissions simply create a more aggressive staff who may have been more knowledgeable about the products but ultimately focused on competing against his or her peers instead of helping me?

Teacher merit pay will certainly create more aggressive and competitive teachers. However, more aggressive and competitive teachers do not guarantee richer, more successful learning environments. In fact, merit pay teachers will have the opposite effect. Ambitious teachers seeking recognition and merit pay will close off their classrooms to guard against perceived competitors. They will divert their energies from teaching to making strategic alliances to eradicate new competition and maintain or advance their own stature with their administration.

Content will suffer. Skills will suffer. Merit pay teachers will focus on advancing test scores (the currency with which they buy credit) over advancing inquiry and creative problem solving in the core disciplines (the skills their students need for future success). The merit pay system may inevitably serve to deter potentially great teachers from entering the classroom, because they lack the social aggression necessary to succeed in the newly “reformed” profession.

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