Merit pay debate hits home

– Karen Yinger’s class of nine severely handicapped students
strive to do their best.
The students, ages 13 to 15, are learning the difference between
pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. A few of them have trouble
standing in a straight line and some are learning to look both ways
before crossing the street.
Gilroy – Karen Yinger’s class of nine severely handicapped students strive to do their best.

The students, ages 13 to 15, are learning the difference between pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. A few of them have trouble standing in a straight line and some are learning to look both ways before crossing the street.

Yinger, a nearly 20-year veteran, teaches her class at South Valley Middle School with patience and encouraging words. But no matter how phenomenal of a teacher she is, Yinger likely would be a victim under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal to tie teacher pay with merit, part of a controversial plan he unveiled earlier this month.

“Each of my students is going to make their own progress in their own unique way,” she said. “If they don’t progress as much as someone thinks they should, that’s not because I didn’t do my job as a teacher. There’s a reality that we have these types of students. I want them to do the best with what they’ve got.”

The governor’s proposal immediately brought harsh criticism from leaders of teacher unions and some administrators across the state, who said the plan was unrealistic and too expensive.

The question of standards

Supporters of a merit pay system say it could help motivate teachers, which could lead to increased student performance. Opponents say there are too many variables involved in student performance and teachers should not be held accountable for student characteristics they have no control over.

At the same time he pitched the merit pay plan, the governor also proposed cutting $2 billion from public schools in the coming year’s budget and suspended a voter-approved proposition that guaranteed a minimum level of annual funding for schools.

The current pay system, based on years of experience and levels of education, would be replaced by a new plan that would evaluate teachers based on a combination of annual performance evaluations and student test scores. Individual school districts would work with collective bargaining units to decide how those two factors should be weighed in order to increase pay. Each district’s plan would need state approval.

One of the biggest questions looming in the minds of Gilroy Unified School District teachers, union leaders, administrators and board members is exactly how teachers would be evaluated and who would be performing the evaluations.

Yinger’s colleague, Lorraine Gonzales, teaches accelerated students in language arts, literature and social studies. Although her students generally do well on standardized tests, Gonzales said a merit pay system isn’t practical.

“The idea of merit pay is a tool to dangle in front of taxpayers to deflect the state’s funding situation,” she said. “The governor is very, very popular. People read that about merit pay and they think, ‘Oh, let’s get those rotten teachers out.’ But it’s the job of the administrators to do their jobs and correctly evaluate teachers.”

Michelle Nelson, president of the Gilroy Teachers Association that represents 513 teachers, agrees. Nelson said she is vehemently against the merit pay proposal, primarily because there are many variables impacting how students learn. Students with special needs or who are learning English, for example, will not progress as quickly as other students.

In addition, while a teacher one year may have a class that’s eager to learn, the next year the same teacher could have a class that struggles. But the blame shouldn’t be placed on the teacher, Nelson said.

Another view

In March 2004, the teachers’ union in Denver approved – with 60 percent of the vote – a system that increases teacher pay based on four core areas: student achievement, professional evaluation, whether the teachers work in a challenging school or class and whether teachers have taken courses to advance their knowledge and skills in their subject area. The system eliminates scheduled increases based on years of service and provides teachers with more individualized pay plans.

Although the logistics of the system are still being worked out, the result so far has been “absolutely worthwhile,” said Brad Jupp, a Denver teacher and coordinator of the pay system.

“The single salary schedule has served a good purpose, but around the country – not just in Denver – the call is louder and louder to provide a pay system to teachers that gives them more options,” he said.

So far, Jupp said the plan has not been more costly than expected, with a budgeted 12.5-percent increase in the district’s $2 million payroll. In November, Denver voters will have to approve $25 million in additional revenue to fully fund the new system, which would take full effect in January 2006.

Although Jupp said it’s too early to tell if implementing the system will translate into attracting higher quality teachers, he has heard anecdotally that teachers feel there’s more opportunities to build a professional and more individualized pay package.

Local opinion

But here in California, some people don’t see the current system as broken and are wondering why there’s such a push to fix it.

GUSD Trustee Jim Rogers said he’s neither in favor nor against a merit pay system, but said the most difficult – and likely improbable part – will be finding practical ways to transition from the current pay system to one based on merit.

“It seems like an immense undertaking and thing to tackle. I think we should stick with what we’ve got until somebody comes up with a way to introduce a fair, properly funded merit system,” he said. “I’m not against (a merit-based system), I’m not in favor of it.”

GUSD Superintendent Edwin Diaz said he sees a merit pay system as a “very divisive proposal” intended to shift the attention of teachers, parents and administrators to something other than the governor’s failure to fulfill his promise for guaranteed funding for education.

Furthermore, Diaz said, if a merit pay system had the potential to improve student performance, researchers and school districts would have realized that by now, and such a system would be in place.

Diaz emphasized that test scores should be used to evaluate teachers, but as part of a comprehensive system that includes a number of other factors, such as if teachers create effective learning environments and are involved in professional development.

“Merit pay is something I’m not even going to spend time thinking about because I think there are better questions to be asking. There are greater needs,” Diaz said. “But yet, using student performance data for accountability is something I strongly believe in and will pursue in a fair way.”

The components of accountability other than scores are numerous, said Susan Meyers, dean of the college of education at San Jose State University. The people judging those components should be a combination of teachers with varying levels of experience, principals and school boards, Meyers said, and there should be at least three data points that lead to merit judgments.

“It’s important that we listen to teachers and have them help us define what is merit,” she said. “If it was easy to identify merit, it would have been done a long time ago. … Certainly the concept of merit is an important one, and certainly teachers are meritorious. They should be rewarded for that. But before that can happen, there are some serious questions that need serious answers.”





Average salary


Average years teaching


Average years in district


Percent of first-year teachers


Percent of second-year teachers

Sources: Gilroy Teachers Ass’n. and State of California Department of Education