Lesson 2: Merit Pay Is Unfair to Our Most At-Risk Students

I’m the best teacher in the world. I just spent four days teaching a writing workshop and you would not believe how much those students improved in an incredibly short time. I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m awesome. I deserve a giant raise!

No, wait. I’m the worst teacher in the world. Two years ago, I taught a class for an entire year and even after a whole year with me, many of those students demonstrated no growth that could be measured. In fact, most of them didn’t even graduate from high school in four years. I guess it’s pretty obvious that I suck. I should be fired or put on an improvement plan.

Say what?! How could one teacher—me—be so highly effective in one class and so grossly ineffective in another?

The students were socioeconomically similar, all students of color from low-income families. I am the same teacher using similar techniques. In fact, I actually used a whole lot more techniques in the second class; I used every single technique I could think of and when I ran out, I hit google long into the night dredging up anything I could possibly imagine. I got advice from my wise and experienced assistant principal, from my colleagues, from anyone I could find. Nothing worked.


Because it is a complete myth that all effective instruction looks alike regardless of context. And it is also a myth that if students aren’t learning, regardless of context, it’s always because the teacher ineffective.

Yes, some teachers are incompetent and shouldn’t be teaching. But let’s keep it real: some students have a long way to go emotionally before they’re ready to grow, an act that is itself a leap of faith that the struggle to learn, which is often difficult and sometimes painful, will be worthwhile. The reality is that I’m neither a genius nor an idiot who should be removed from the classroom. I’m a darn good writing teacher—if the students are emotionally ready to trust me or trust adults in general. If they’re not, no matter how good I may be or how hard I try, I’m likely to fail and fail again.

The thing is, despite their demographic similarities, the two classes I’m describing actually were quite different. In the first, the students were high-testing, highly motivated students; some of them had parents who had attended college. Teaching these students was a dream. I’ve never experienced anything like it. These kids were eager. Everything interested them. They loved challenging themselves. Teaching that class was like tossing a beach ball into a crowded swimming pool: just lob a thought out there and the kids would toss it around joyously just for the sport of it. I never had to explain anything twice. They were so excited about learning that the classes would often spill over through lunch while our discussions raged on.

Teaching students like these is exhilarating. It’s definitely work to keep up with them intellectually, but it’s just fun, fun, fun. At the end of the day, I’d be energized. I’d feel successful—and their progress on the rubric demonstrated measurable results.

The students from the second group were low-testing 11th graders who had flunked many classes and were at risk of not graduating. A large number of them were English Language Learners. None of them had parents who had been to college and many of them came from extremely troubled families. One boy had a mother who had disappeared the previous year, simply vanished, as far as anyone could tell. Another girl had emigrated here from El Salvador to find that her mother had remarried a man who did not want the girl in the house. Another boy had a single mother who would scream at him every day that he was a loser. One girl had run away the previous year and joined a gang for months; she had only returned to school because someone had tried to shoot her and it freaked her out.  One boy threw pencils and called me a fucking bitch when I asked him to stop.

Teaching these students was exhausting and demoralizing. Many of them had difficulty sitting still or concentrating for more than ten minutes at a stretch. The girl who had run away simply could not stop talking. The boy whose mother had disappeared was seething with anger and sometimes frightened the students around him with his hostility. For all the frustrations, I truly loved the students, and they seemed fond of me as well. When the kids found the courage, the strength and the persistence to turn their lives around, as a few of them did, I swear to God I never witnessed anything as deeply inspiring. But if anyone had measured my success by any kind of data, it was a total failure, which is ironic, because I worked about 8 million times harder than I did in my successful class.

One of the main reasons I took this sabbatical was that I became obsessed with this second class, the very at-risk students I couldn’t reach and that nobody at my excellent school seemed to be able to reach consistently. I wanted to see if anyone had unlocked the magic solution, if there was some effective technique to be used. But across the city, I saw the same situation. Whenever I saw a class with a large number of very at-risk students in high-poverty communities—by which I mean students with a long, negative history in school and very low skill levels from families in chaotic, sometimes traumatic circumstances–no matter how great the teacher was, progress was slow at best and many, many of the students were falling off the rails. Across the board in very at-risk communities, classes were significantly smaller in May than they’d been in September, sometimes by as much as half, because students had “checked out” or dropped out.

What the best teachers do in these situations is persist anyway. These teachers are somehow able to let go of the need to see measurable results immediately; their strength is in their ability to see the potential of their students and to hang tough in that belief in spite of all of the student’s negative behavior.

That persistence, that belief, that strength—these are qualities that go beyond our notions of effectiveness or measurable results. And yet for very at-risk students, these qualities matter as much or more than the “effective” teaching techniques we are currently valuing.  The truth is, for the students who find the strength to turn around, those turnarounds are close to miraculous.  And often students who appear to be failing actually are listening on some level.  I recently ran into the pencil-throwing guy who called me a bitch–a kid I’d inexplicably come to be extremely fond of in spite of everything. Two years later, he had somehow managed to graduate from high school and was now in community college.  I have no idea how this happened or whether my class was a factor–I’m sure there were many, many factors, including my school’s willingness to stick with him–and I’ll never know.  Sometimes teaching looks a whole lot like the deepest kind of faith.

That’s why I’m really concerned about merit pay. Any system I’ve seen is based on a combination of classroom observations and data that generally are tied in some way to test score growth, but these observations and data are going to look way better when students are eager and ready to learn than when they’re very at-risk students with low skills who have may have trust issues. Even “VAM,” or value-added formulas that factor in socioeconomic conditions, wouldn’t measure the differences between the two classes I taught.  Once merit pay kicks in, we’re basically going to be incentivizing teaching kids like the first group of my students, high-performing, high-functioning students and punishing teachers who work with our most at-risk kids, like the students I taught two years ago.  How do we value faith? How do we value the ability to see potential in every child, every day, no matter how angry or self-loathing or traumatized that child may be? How do we value the teachers who come in every day and see intelligence in every child despite the lack of measurable evidence to prove it yet?

Ironically, this work, the work with our most at-risk students, is in my opinion the most important work in education. It is also by far the most difficult. If we’re going to talk at all about merit pay, we must first make the teachers who teach these students our priority—by finding a language to recognize and support their strengths and a system to reward them so that these teachers, like their students, will not continue to vanish from our schools.


12 thoughts on “Lesson 2: Merit Pay Is Unfair to Our Most At-Risk Students”

  1. I believe a lot of it comes from student motivation. One of my IEP/EL students this past year soared, passing his classes with mostly B’s. Where did it come from? He wanted to be the first in his family to graduate from college. Also, once his grades started improving, (which they did being in my Resource Lab and going to tutoring several days a week) it gave him the confidence to keep on going. I don’t think the motivation has to necessarily come from home, and in so many cases, it doesn’t, but it has to come from somewhere or someone.

    1. I totally agree, Marion! And sometimes teachers can provide the necessary push, but sometimes that’s not enough no matter how hard the teacher tries. It’s mysterious.

  2. The other danger I see in merit pay is it pits teachers against one another, puts them in competition, and discourages the very collaboration and collegial teamwork we claim to prize. Instead of merit pay, I think we should fully invest in a mentorship program which pairs master teachers with incoming teachers. Reward the extra time and commitment to the profession, not “winning” the “race to the top” based on highly suspect test scores. Choosing master teachers should be the shared work of faculty, administration, and families, not the data.

  3. I’m going to respectfully disagree as someone who has worked in the trenches (high school special ed teacher in a full inclusion program, co-teacher of geometry and algebra) for a very long time with the at-risk populations described in this absolutely dead-on piece. I firmly believe that ALL kids are motivated to do well. However, when they have not found paths to success day in and day out, year after year, they do indeed begin to look pretty unmotivated. I would, too. While we can’t usually control anything that goes on at home, we can control lots of things that go on in our classrooms. In my experience, far too many times teachers judge and give up on these kids, through no fault of their own…teachers just haven’t been provided training on how to work with them. Plus, we have little energy or patience for it in our overworked, undervalued educator worlds. Besides poor behavior and study skills, these kids have significant gaps in academic knowledge–teachers are often unaware just how difficult academics are for them and lack the tools to know how to reach them where they are. However, some teachers do get them, do acquire the specialized interventions to help these kids succeed. And what happens to them? They are ranked, rated, and judged poor educators, just as this article illustrates. And, even worse, at Ridgeway High School in Tennessee, teachers themselves have used Race to the Top money to overhaul their teacher compensation structure. Based on the student test score benchmark, teachers like the ones in this article who teach kids with, say, learning disabilities will be unable to earn as much money as their colleagues teaching high ability learners. Shame! I can tell you I walk out the door of my school as a teacher to these struggling students way later many school days than some of my colleagues teaching advanced classes. Why should I earn less? How these teachers came up with such a poor, unfair plan is unfathomable to me.

  4. I understand your assumptions that the teachers with hard working students with supportive parents will end up with much of the merit pay. Though I taught in a pretty affluent county, my school was pretty much bottom on the socioeconomic ladder. Everyone understands that the teachers in more affluent schools have an easier job to do in reaching students, but merit pay really isn’t a threat. Merit pay ideas were around before the super-standardization and testing mandates went into full effect and they’ll be around after it. Money doesn’t make a teacher. Life isn’t fair.

    With that parent interest also comes constant questioning by parents and it isn’t really as rewarding of a position (as you professed in your post). We didn’t choose to become neurosurgeons. We weren’t in it for the money.Good teachers are going to work where they’re appreciated and can make a difference regardless of the pay for as long as they can handle it.

    1. It’s true that I didn’t factor in helicopter parents! That’s something I never had to deal with. But I actually do think merit pay makes a difference–if teachers in underserved communities have less chance of ever making a decent wage, that’s going to have a serious effect on the work force as teachers move into their thirties and start families. So will the continual demoralization of being rated as failing or inadequate. Life isn’t fair, but if we want to attract and retain good teachers in low-income communities, something we have not succeeded in doing to date, we need to start thinking about what teachers in those communities want and need in order to stay on the job.

      1. In DC, where an evaluation / bonus / firing system was implemented they now have results that show teachers in the poorest communities of DC had a disproportionate number of teachers rated ineffective compared to the more affluent schools. To me, this discourages teachers from wanting to teach in the highest poverty areas – you’ll have a greater chance of losing your job and/or not receiving a bonus.

        I’ll try and find the source on this I remember reading the article somewhere.

  5. I work in an urban high school with 100% free lunch. I love my school – its by far the most challenging and interesting place I’ve ever taught. Last year (my first year there) because of some timing snafus well above my pay grade, a significant number of teachers were given an “F” for their value added score – which meant I was given a rating of “ineffective” (we know that VAM is not really 50% of the score). What was most irritating about it is that half my rating was based on an aggregate of scores of students taught at all grade levels, all buildings in my district, by other people. You bet it makes me think about finding a new position elsewhere. My students deserve better than to lose good teachers over stuff like this. (Want to find out more or help? We made a petition to our governor. http://chn.ge/1oRnUfk)

  6. Great article. Nailed it on the head.

    My two cents: I actually get paid more to work at an at-risk school. I get an extra $5000 for being Nationally Board Certified, and another $5000 for working at a middle school with 60% or more of the students being on free or reduced lunch.

    All that being said, I believe in merit pay. Merit pay, though, could only work if we had freedom. Sadly, we don’t have freedom…the school my students go to are dictated on their zip code. This is truly sad. This is why I advocate for the voucher system. Tie the money to the student, and let the parents decide which solution is best for their kid.

    And through this system, I believe I would get paid more. The school I currently work for might say, “We believe a lot of kids are choosing this school because of the high quality teacher we have…and we need to reward them.”

    This is how the rest of the free enterprise market works…no reason we couldn’t set up to better serve our most valuable resource…our kids.

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