Merit-based pay not enough to reform education

School districts across the country have accepted federal money to reward teachers for their students’ performances.

While re-evaluating teacher pay is an admirable step toward education reform, simply offering bonuses for high scores on standardized tests and other benchmarks isn’t enough.

An overall consensus on this issue can’t be established, as some studies show that incentives lead to increased performance, while others show no correlation.

Lawmakers seem to agree that rewarding effective educators will be beneficial to the U.S., which ranks 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math out of 34 countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

However, very few school districts around the country have embraced this plan, and, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive, only 28 percent of teachers thought that monetary incentives would have a strong impact; 30 percent thought it would make no difference at all. In fact, most teachers surveyed said they valued non-monetary rewards over higher pay.

Those who hire educators should not disregard these findings. Perhaps a teacher who only decides to make a difference after more money is involved should not have been hired in the first place. A complimentary paycheck for “actually teaching” shouldn’t be the factor that makes underperforming teachers start to care about their students’ success. Education should have more significant goals like maximizing student potential and giving young people the knowledge they need to better society.

This is not to say that teachers are paid adequately for their services. If teacher pay is re-evaluated, it needs to be reconstructed from the ground up – not slightly adjusted to reward high standardized test scores. Throwing money at this issue distracts from the real problem: kids simply not caring about school.

The U.S. needs to become a place where education is so deeply embedded in our culture that our youth feels compelled to put forth effort in school. Maybe this stems from every child growing up wanting to become a movie star, a professional athlete or some other superficial occupation. In some ways, the “you can be whatever you want to be” mentality might slow the progress of imaginative youngsters who aren’t yet concerned with the world around them.

Another problem lies in the double-edged sword of standardized testing. In the past, these tests were ones students couldn’t fail and simply served as a measure of progress. Today, students devote entire school years memorizing the tips and tricks needed to solve standardized puzzles to avoid being held back.

These tests are provided by profit-driven companies whose goals may not align with America’s need for a smarter population. Teachers across the country who have worked on creating or grading such tests have spoken out against them, calling them a waste of time and money. They cite problems such as unqualified test-makers, the overemphasis on grading quickly and teachers altering test answers for perceived high performance.

Amy Weivoda said of her experience working on these tests: “That experience led me to believe with absolute certainty that standardized tests are an utter waste of money and valuable teaching time, and that they measure nothing more than a state government’s willingness to waste money.”

While offering paid incentives might help to improve the U.S.’s standing in the international rankings, in the end, students have more control over their performance than teachers.

Money won’t remedy the vast institutional problems our country’s education system faces. We should focus on selling students the importance of learning rather than buying higher test scores from our teachers.

Joe Polito is a junior majoring in mass communications.