Rewarding the Profession: Melding the Art with the Science

Mar 19, 2014

Rewarding the Profession: Melding the Art with the Science

Ask any teacher what s/he thinks of merit pay, and you’ll probably get a shudder and a grimace at the same time.  It’s not that any teacher is against being paid more, but merit pay has been inextricably linked to student performance.  While a layman might think that would be fair, any person in the profession knows that such action would be anything but fair.  Think of tying a farmer’s worth to his crop value without taking into consideration drought, disease, or the vicissitudes of crop prices and weather conditions.  No Child Left Behind is based on student performance; and we’ve all seen the disaster that NCLB has turned out to be with teachers teaching to the tests, cheating to get the scores higher, students being sentenced to a school experience of learning rote material and receiving little if any education that counts, such as how to think through a problem, solve it, find resources, and write or speak about it.  The creative arts have been left behind; NCLB and its inherent system of student-based judging has been a fiasco from the first day. 

Could there be another way though?  In my mind, the quagmire of merit pay has left me rigidly against the proposition-- that is until one windy and cold autumn morning when I visited the tiny school of Centerville in the Montana north central outback.  I had accompanied the area Montana Education Association/Montana Federation of Teachers Field Consultant, Jerry Rukavina, to this his own family’s school.  We sauntered down the hall with Sue Lorang, the librarian, and Jerry brought up the fact that Centerville had a system of merit pay forged by the teachers and the union which Jerry says is “a credit to the (school) board who had been encouraging such a change and had offered $3500.00 as an incentive for the teachers.”  In subsequent meetings, first all of the teachers threw out the performance-based models they’d seen and came up with a system that works for them and for their school.  Forging the agreement took the input of every teacher as they wrote descriptors which signify a professional steeped in his/her profession and a successful educator.  As Rukavina states: “Good teaching is both an art and a science.  It’s impossible to ‘datify’ the art of teaching, any more than one can quantify a great work of art.”    So successful has been this program, though, that the most recent amount offered by the school board has been $10,000 extra compensation.  What a concept.  Jerry and Susan explained that the Performance-Based Compensation (as they prefer to call it) adopted after many hours of study and analysis includes some 55 items which teachers self-report on throughout the year.  Some of the items include field trips taken, graduate courses completed, involvement in both political and union activities, and many more. 

What I found genius in this endeavor was how many of the items would (and do, I’m sure) serve to inspire teachers to go beyond the norm and try exciting and innovative ways of inspiring their students -- items in this area include developing new instructional units, modifying or differentiating for instruction, using cross-over grade or subject matter units, inviting guest speakers, and conducting in-school as well as out-of-school field trips.  Teachers are also awarded points for including student writing in classes where writing has not traditionally been a part of the curriculum, using a variety of assessments, and adhering to a discipline plan.  To me, the system crosses all boarders of the teaching experience from personal contributions to classroom instruction to political activity, from involvement in school activities to background and professional growth.  In those categories, I found a well-thought out and pertinent list of what goes into making a professional teacher.  It does not mention class averages or attainment levels; instead, the system encourages as much or as little as a teacher might be willing to do in the course of a year, but it also contains the seeds of inspiration to go beyond what one might have been doing, to venture out, to try something different without the fear of failure.  It does what merit pay should do: it pays for meritorious teaching, not for student grades.

Along with the school board, Jerry calls the community a factor  in the program’s success.  Rukavina claims that he’s never walked into the Centerville School which contains K-12 grades and felt anything but welcome, and he feels that students have the same reaction.  “A kid would really have to work at being lost in the shuffle in this school,” Rukavina observed.   So that caring atmosphere, along with an interested and involved school board, community buy-in, and a faculty open to trying to find the answer to what makes a good teacher even better combined to create Centerville’s  Performance-Based Compensation (PBC).  The system that the committee came up with is a testament to these facile minds  and to the determination to make this system both equitable and yet challenging and capable of “growing” a teacher. 

Teachers often under-sell their contributions because so much goes into an average day that “datifying” it as Rukavina says is all but impossible, but with the PBC system, teachers get a profile of the work they do and the part they play in the community, their classroom, and their school.

I came home from that experience in Centerville, on fire to find out more about the system and to write about it.  The excitement the idea engendered in me was enough to warm up that chilly morning in Montana and to shed the light of a great idea. We teachers always talk about the “Aha moment,” when an idea catches the interest,  attention, and understanding of our students.  We should never be immune to those moments ourselves.   Performance Based Compensation may be an idea whose moment has arrived. 

This is Pat Rosenleaf, a retired educator, who will never lose interest in public education — the United States’  great equalizer .  Thanks for listening.