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Merit Pay’s Trap: When Lawmakers Are Clueless About Teachers’ Classroom Realities

| April 1, 2011

school attendance teacher accountability florida law merit pay

What if they don't show up? (© Jon DeBoer)

By Jo Ann C. Nahirny

“Hey, Ken,” I greeted the 15-year-old sophomore as he was about to enter my English 2 class a few days ago. “Can we talk for a minute?”

“I’ve noticed you’ve missed a lot of school lately, and when you’re here, you aren’t turning in your work. Your grade has tanked! That’s not like you. What’s going on?”

“My parents split up,” Ken lamented. “Dad left us. I know I’m failing, but I just can’t seem to concentrate on anything.”

I commiserated with the young man, and gently pointed out that his grades had fallen so much that it would take a major comeback in the fourth quarter to pass for the semester. I didn’t want to mention the “F word,” but FCAT was just around the corner. He needed to realize that if he didn’t do well on it, he’d face remedial classes in eleventh grade –if he even got there.

“I don’t care about FCAT,” Ken sputtered. “I’ve got too much family stuff to worry about. With my father gone, I have a lot of responsibilities at home now.”

When I phoned another student’s parent the next morning, things grew bleaker still.

Jo Ann Nahirny (© FlaglerLive)

Jo Ann Nahirni (© FlaglerLive)

“I’m concerned about Tyler,” I told her mother. “She’s far behind the rest of the class, and she’s having a hard time with writing, and even basic grammar. I’ve repeatedly asked her to come see me after school for extra help, but she never does.”

“Tyler’s never been a strong student,” her mom responded matter-of-factly. “I knew her grades were slipping, but I didn’t realize they were so low until you called just now. I wish I could let her stay for tutoring, but I can’t. Tyler has a job; we need her to work. For us, it’s a necessity.”

During my planning period a short time later, more disconcerting news awaited. I attended a meeting for Cathryn, a struggling student failing multiple courses. Entering the room, I saw several other teachers and the student seated around the conference table — but no parents. As we chatted with her about her academic travails, revised her goals and made suggestions to bolster her success in the classroom, Cathryn sniffled, “I’m doing the best I can. I know I have to do more, but I’m living between two houses because my parents are divorced. Half the week I’m with my dad, and half the week I stay with Mom. I’m constantly going back and forth. It’s hard for me to stay organized and not forget stuff at either place. I’ll try to do better.”

The Live Commentary

About an hour after dismissal, I finally checked the accumulation of e-mail in my inbox. The first message I opened brought more discouraging news; it informed me that one of my students, Don, had been suspended — for the second time in less than a week. His offense both times? Using an electronic device (cell phone or I-Pod) during class. Prior to these suspensions, Don had already accrued more than 20 absences, and was seriously behind in all academic areas. I e-mailed my concerns to a supervisor, suggesting Don needed more time in school, not less, to catch up with his work, and asking if we could possibly consider an alternative consequence, but my idea went nowhere fast.

I got in my car after spending nine hours on campus. I drove home, all the while mournfully pondering how the personal choices my students and their families had made would end up turning into financial and professional liabilities for me, despite my extraordinary efforts.

Ken, Tyler, Cathryn and Don (not their real names) will take the FCAT in just a couple of weeks. How do you suppose they’ll fare? They’ve all missed many days of school, largely due to their complicated family situations. Yet under Senate Bill 736, the “Student Success Act,” when these kids’ FCAT test scores reveal that their reading skills haven’t improved, Florida’s governor has decreed it’ll be my fault. I’ll be to blame. But should my salary and my family’s livelihood suffer for things I can’t control?

I’d love to show some of my students’ attendance records to Rick Scott and Evelyn Lynn and their like-minded colleagues to enable them to get a more realistic glimpse of what teachers contend with. And it’s not just Ken, Tyler, Cathryn, and Don I’m talking about. Forty percent of the students in my English 2 classes have missed 10 or more days of class so far this school year. These students will likely constitute the 40 percent who won’t demonstrate learning gains this year. How can they? They’ve simply missed too much instructional class time to be able to master much of anything. And when they do come to school, it’s a never-ending game of catch-up, played while tackling weighty problems in their personal lives that most adults couldn’t handle.

I don’t oppose an equitable, well-devised performance-pay plan for teachers, and I agree that one of the most important factors in students’ success is the quality of their teachers. But that’s not the only factor. Attendance plays a pivotal role, and that’s the reason why the test scores of the eleventh-graders in my Advanced Placement English classes always far surpass state and national averages: very few of those highly-motivated students miss more than a couple of days of school each year. Their AP scores reflect this. Far fewer of my English 2 students improve their FCAT reading scores; those who do are the ones who attend school regularly.

So is it wise to judge teachers’ effectiveness based on the performance of students who simply don’t show up enough to learn much of anything? Maybe Governor Scott could drop by and ask Don, Tyler, Cathryn and Ken what they think… if they should happen to come to school tomorrow.

Jo Ann C. Nahirny, a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches English at Matanzas High School in Palm Coast. Reach her by email here.

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16 Responses for “Merit Pay’s Trap: When Lawmakers Are Clueless About Teachers’ Classroom Realities”

  1. Jim Guines says:

    I put my heart felt comments in an e-mail to Jo Ann because I wanted them to be private. I happen to believe that she is one of our very best teachers. This is the type of teacher that the profession is going to lose if we can’t stop this madness

  2. Yellowstone says:

    This conversation has been ongoing since I got my Florida Teaching Certificate in 1970!

    The missing word in this debate is ‘accountability’.

    What we’d all like to see – instead of the way it is, and has always been – a classroom led by these so-called excellent Teachers with the so-called lowest performing students.

    If after a few years of this trial you see marked significant positive performance levels – then we can say “It can be done!”.

    But to allow this merit system go through without a ‘trail and error’ period is like forecasting a train wreck.

    Those of us who have chosen to dedicate our careers to educatiing our youth and adults know there is difference between youth learning because you ‘have to’ and adults who learn because they ‘want to’.

    Good luck to all you present and future Florida teachers . . .

  3. Lucine says:

    Somebody seriously needs to forward this well-written and true-to-life piece of literature to our inept governor. Not that he will change is mind.

  4. palmcoaster says:

    Very realistic description of what I see taking place in the classroom today! No education privatization will improve this reality furthermore will make it worst.
    All of the sudden our public workers, teachers, nurses, law enforcement, firefighters, etc., all our workers public or private are all inept, lazy and over paid…?. These new teabaggers governors exercise a war of attrition against them all and indeed against middle society and have one absolute goal…to make corporations and government have future slaves to fulfill their greed. Total privatization will bring the doomsday of America. So lets organize, resist and succeed against this agenda via recalls now:

  5. Teacher Advocate says:

    I agree, it is well stated and represents the true picture of what teachers face everyday in the classrioom. It is ridiculous to base teacher merit pay (in whole or in part) on a single test given on a single day. There can never be a level playing field – there is no “formula” that can be applied for awarding merit pay that will be equitable for all teachers. The legislators need to spend a week in a middle or high school classroom to get a true perspective on this issue.

  6. Liana G says:

    While I can understand the concept of incentive+motivation, where do we begin?

    What about the kindergarten teacher that did not prepare the child for 1st grade, or the 1st grade teacher, or 2nd grade etc, etc.

    It’s not just kids with trouble home lives, it’s also kids with learning disabilities that the system cannot seem to reach, and the many others( including those from middle and upper middle income) who are simply not motivated for whatever reasons. Many American teenagers work, it has always been part of the culture.

    For every Ken, Tyler, Cathryn and Don, there’s a Thomas Sowell , George Soros, Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling, and countless others out there, just needing to see a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.

    Students need effective and transformational teachers, likewise teachers need effective and transformational leaders.

  7. Yellowstone says:

    What is really sobering about this discussion is we (all Florida taxpayers) pay about $9.000 per student per year. Multiply this by 12 years in the public school system and we have paid over $110,000 to educate each student.

    Now think about this: We don’t educate them! Nearly half, or more in some instances of the 8th graders will never see HS graduation. Not to mention the lack of a quality education provided to those that do.

    So we pay dearly for the enormous an expensive effort put forth – but where are the returns: surly students, followers of the Pied Pipers, additional fodder for the world’s squirmishes?

    Think about it: You go to the store and buy a product for $9.000. It works half the time. “What’ya gunna do about it?”

    Florida presently rankes about 30th in nation in lower spending per pupil (see: and we presently have a Legislature that wants to further reduce it.

    Are we getting our dollar’s worth?

  8. Jack Jeffe says:

    When are our legislators going to address the responsibility or lack of responsibility of parents to send children to school with proper attitudes about doing your best. To provide them a secure home environment so that they are not worried about things like having to have a job to support the family at the cost of not having enough time to adequately do their homework. Some students come to school hungry, so hungry that they cannot keep their mind on learning. We all hear about the students who came from homes where there was not good conditions and they made it anyway. I am a retired teacher and taught in a school where there were no poor teachers due to having a principal who didn’t give tenure to anyone that did not deserve it. Teacher unions had better get with the idea that they should help weed out the ocassional poor teacher that was granted tenure instead of protecting the poor ones.Too many legislators are people who come from industry where you have control of the raw materials, working conditions so they can correctly see who is producing the most and best product. A teacher does not have any control about the raw material that they start out with (students with all sort of social problems) and working conditions that often they have little or no control over. Therefore there is no fair way to base their salary on test scores without considering the social problems of the students that they teach.

  9. David says:

    Yellowstone, please consider a few things:

    1. Whether or not a student graduates is at least as much the student’s responsibility as the system’s. We need to understand why they are failing to graduate – and in a number of cases the issue is actually the FCAT!

    2. How do you define a lack of quality education? I just want to be clear because Florida schools ranked 5th in the nation this year. Perhaps the focus on FCAT and other standardized tests it the issue here as well?

    3. We do not spend $9000 per student, that is an average. A general ed student sees far less than that amount, and I would also ask that you check how much of that average is attributable to the FCAT testing – test companies are making tens and hundreds of millions for those tests. Also realize that schools receive money already earmarked – so it is difficult to control spending effectively.

    The school system, can, should and must change for the better, but this system won’t do that. Perhaps asking educators might help? Teachers are not the enemy, just a convenient target.

  10. 91LX says:

    Amen Jack!

  11. Liz McLaughlin says:

    Another thing I was wondering about – I read in the paper last week that the new accountability for teachers means that in order to keep their jobs (the newest teachers without tenure), the teachers will have to show improvement with their classes over three years. Huh?? A teacher has new students each year. How can a new class show improvement over the year before if they are not the same students? One year could be a class of mostly responsible, hard working students and then the next year a teacher could get a class with half the students like the ones Nahirny writes about. Does this make sense?

  12. Teacher Advocate says:

    The teaching profession does not get the respect it deserves. I don’t understand these people who think teachers are paid so well – do they realize that they have at least a 4 year degree, some 6 (with a masters) or 8 (with a doctorate). They must take 120 hours of professional development to keep a license current.

    When I entered the profession (many years ago), a first year teacher was given a support system to ensure they were meeting the standards. If after the first 90 days it was evident that the candidate was not really cut out to be a teacher, he/she was gently “encouraged” to seek other employment. After 3 years the teacher earned a professional certificate, which had to be renewed every 5 years through a combination of inservice workshops, observations and documentation of best teaching practices.

    The variable in this equation is the STUDENTS! The best teacher can have a great class one year and a horrible class the next. So now it all becomes the teacher’s fault if the students do not succeed – how ridiculous. This new legislation will drive the best and brightest away from the profession. It is stressful enough to be a teacher without the threat of not being renewed hanging over their heads all year.

  13. Yellowstone says:


    I am going to assume you are in a position (in public education) whereby you can see what’s going on – not just a parent – though that is important. I do respect your point of view and concern, however .

    Suspicions here are you maybe closer to the ‘administration’ and may have good reason to distort things for this audience.

    1. As an example, I once taught an ROTC class. About a third of the female cadets dropped out in the first semester. Why? Teen pregnancies. All of them dropped out before course completion. The social confrontations among their peers, I have seen, counseled, and experienced first hand among these kids is the biggest problem. Biggest reason for 13 year old female students (especially one ethnic grouping) was pregnancies.

    Have you seen students among the lower tiers ridiculed for making just barely passing grades? It’s an afront on any hardworking student – some cannot handle it – so they give up.

    Kids can’t, then won’t, perform in school because of the enormous personal pressures put on them from their own personal environments; friends, teachers, and home. The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (they say I am a failure, therefore I am) takes hold.

    FCAT, from my experience, is not ever problem – for most. Interestingly, it can be a problem for a few of the high achievers however. Those kids that spend 5 days a week, and Saturdays, in a formal classroom environment sweat over a tenth of a grade point. In fact they will fight me to the floor for that extra half-point.

    The 45 – 60% dropouts fall into several categories that are mostly blackholes – kind of an undefined area; ie, family moved out of the distrct, illness, had to go to work to support the family.

    Dave, there huge problems here – far beyond the approach you are taking. Believe this – we are in the second and third generation (parents who know less and less) of dumbing down.. While the high performers are doing more on their own to get ahead.

    2. Regarding my financials – they are correct. I provided a reference. I thought the numbers were quite conservative considering we did not factor inflation over 12 years. If you are privy to more exact figures – provide a reference.

    3. Honestly, David, where did you get that “5th in the nation”? Florida’s schools are 30th and falling! I need to see your reference. There maybe (and are) a few superior schools – but the vast majority do not reach excellence. Adjust the numbers, exclude certain students, make erasures, – the results provide students at my doorstep who cannot write a simple sentence, fill out an appplication, answer verbal questions about themselves and their ambitions. Nuff said on quality . . .

    It’s Tofler’s ‘Future Shock’ – as predicted.

    May God bless our great nation and allow the bravest among us to re-create another public education system from the bottom up.

  14. Liz McLaughlin says:

    Yellowstone: Dave may have gotten his info from the 2011 edition of “Quality Counts” Report published in EDUCATION WEEK – the newspaper of record for American education news. That’s where I read it.

  15. Yellowstone says:


    Thank you! Thanks to all . . . Glad we got through this without any labling (name calling).

    This is a terrific subject that we could carry on in public somewhere. How about scheduling the Starbuck’s Congerence Room?

    I guess it’s time to leave this topic and get ready for the controversy on the upcoming government shutdown. After all, this subject is really about reducing spending – and not improving the existing declining situation.

    See ya’ll in the next exciting forum.

    Y . . .

  16. BW says:

    First, I am not a fan of the merit pay legislation as it stands mostly because of the heavy reliance on test scores. But the examples here are indicative of great developmental opportunities for a teacher and should be a part of a performance review process.

    1. Why wait until a student’s grades and performance have slipped so far to the “point of no return” before intervening with the student? This conversation should have taken place far before it did.

    2. Manage the behaviors and not the situation. You have a young girl who has the unfortunate and difficult situation of being between 2 homes. The problem she communicated in regards to school is organization and planning. Address that and come up with an agreeable plan utilizing planning and organization tools to overcome that situation.

    3. Th young man who got himself suspended is an anomaly. What percentage of students are suspended each year in this teacher’s classroom? It’s probably minimal and therefore not really relevant.

    The point is that leadership types of jobs are all dependent upon the success of their people. In this case, formally or informally teachers have always had their success measured by the success of their students. A manager whose people do not perform is accountable and can not make excuses. It’s a mindset change of “make your people successful and you will be successful”. That does not mean do the work for them or just teach them how to take a test. It means driving them, motivating them, and holding them accountable in a timely manner.

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