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Collaboration, Merit, and Other Things

I had a really great experience yesterday: a colleague of mine who is another beginning music teacher and I traveled to Lethbridge in order to present our Professional Inquiry Project. In our education degree program, you spend roughly 50% of your time in the final field experience placement (which lasts 16 weeks) doing not just planning for your 50% teaching load, but also a sort of professional study. You rarely get this sort of time dedication for PD when you’re a full-time teacher, so it’s good to do something that will be helpful for a long time. We had decided to do it collaboratively on effective ways to assess in a music classroom.

Anyhow, our faculty consultant recommended us among others to come and present our project as well as talk about our experiences in PS III (the designation of our placement) to other student teachers who were going to be doing what we are now finishing, but in January-April (ish). We didn’t get many visitors for the first few minutes, but then people started wandering over and we ended up constantly discussing teaching and our study for about 2 hours with anywhere from 20-40 people on and off.

It really brought home to me the value of collaboration. Teaching can be a scary thing: you’re basically handed the responsibility for 20-30 (sometimes as many as 200 if you are a PE or options or secondary school teacher) children and told ‘all right, prepare them for life, and don’t mess up if you can avoid it’. It’s hard to know what to do in all situations. But if you keep talking with other teachers and stealing great ideas from them, you tend to be in good shape.

Here in Alberta, there’s a discussion going on about what is going to be upcoming reforms to our Education Act. The provincial government has stated that it wants to improve the system and update the legislation. They’ve put up an online centre where people can go to contribute ideas or read others’ ideas, and anyone from students with an internet connection to 35-year veteran teachers is encouraged to participate. Another great form of collaboration (at least, in theory). However, being that many people who are not involved with the education system are contributing, we get some very interesting ideas.

One of these interesting ideas is ‘merit pay’. This has been an especially big debate in the American Education system. I’m sure if you asked the author of this blog (which is something you should read anyway if you’re interested in education) you’d find out some of the truly thorny questions they’ve tackled on this issue. Anyways, merit pay is the idea that the better teachers get paid more. It sounds eminently sensible. After all, in big business, you move up the pay scale as you do good work and get promotions.

The two problems I have with this are that it’s very hard to judge who should receive merit pay, and it has the potential to kill collaboration.

Firstly, the question is, ‘how do we judge who the best teachers are?’ The textbook answer is that the best teachers will have students who perform better, who achieve higher results. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Unless every single assessment in every subject throughout the system is standardized and the same, you can’t cross-compare student population results. If my students are doing tests written by me, and my colleague’s students are doing different tests written by her, you cannot legitimately compare our two sets of results and say for certain whether or not they’re equivalent. They may be doing the same curriculum objectives, but if I’m just a worse test writer, my results may be skewed either positively or negatively.

There are some standardized tests that are province-wide in Alberta, but those are once a year every three years (Grade 3, 6, 9, and 12). One test is nowhere near enough for this idea to work. Also, the incredible amount of paperwork and effort that would go into making each test standardized would be absolutely unfeasible.

In addition, if I happen to teach in a low-income, high-learning disability school, I will probably have students who are running more on adapted programs. It would be unfair to compare the results of my students with the results of the students in another city who are doing unmodified programs. So for these reasons, I think that merit pay is already too complicated and too impractical to work.

But perhaps an even more important reason is that if we were on a merit pay system, I don’t think my wonderful experience with presenting the collaborative PIP project would have happened. That project came out of a current consciousness of the necessity to beg, borrow, and steal from other teachers in order to both improve your own practice and make your teaching life easier. It’s much better to take methods of instruction and assessment from sources unlike your own teaching style so that your students get the benefits of a wide range of methods, hopefully some of which are going to engage and spark their learning.

However, if we are on a merit pay system, there is absolutely zero incentive for me to do this. If I collaborate with you, I am in fact preemptively reducing my chances of getting paid more, because I no longer have the advantage of more tools to teach ‘better’ than you. Now, are most teachers about the money? No. But the implication is still there. Regardless of if you want to get paid more, the environment still has this implication of ‘every person for their self’, and encourages teachers to look at their pay stub and think ‘Ha! I always knew I was a better teacher than <name> across the hall! I guess I don’t need to worry about taking advice from him anymore!’

I’m not suggesting that there are not bad teachers. I’m also not suggesting that there shouldn’t be a way of rewarding the good teachers. I just think that, especially in a field that rewards collaboration as much as education does, any system of merit pay is going to damage and possibly destroy some of the great progress we’ve made in education.

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4 Comments

  1. kayymm says:

    One of the reasons I love Education so much is that fact that it’s not competitive. As you know being in music as a performer is EXTREMELY competitive and I knew I was of average talent/skill so education really fits me well. I would be so bummed out if all of a sudden we couldn’t rely on our colleagues for help when we needed it.
    Plus the triad would just destroy the heck out of the music programs in Alberta. Between the three of us we have all levels covered. =D

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