By Alexandra Toumanoff, 16, University HS
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Bob Loos, a Hollenbeck Middle School English teacher, attended a teachers' union rally holding a sign asking for decent wages.

In the seventh grade, I had a lazy, self-centered English teacher, who only bothered to come to school two or three days a week. One day she assigned a short story. I turned mine in on time, along with a few other people, and she announced, "Anyone who turned in the assignment on time has an automatic A." My paper had no marks or comments, and I wanted some feedback. I asked if she had any suggestions for me, but she didn’t even glance at me. She said, "You have your A. Go sit down." She never bothered to read my paper, or anyone else’s.

Another teacher I had gave arbitrary grades. One person I know was openly hated by the teacher and given Ds on several report cards. Luckily my friend had saved all his graded papers. Finally when my friend brought all his graded papers with him to a parent conference, they calculated his average—a B. He hadn’t gotten any Ds. The teacher gave him Ds because she felt like it.

Other teachers didn’t hand back papers until months after they were assigned, or never handed them back at all. I’ve seen kids lose inspiration after having such terrible teachers. Kids aren’t getting the education they deserve and they’re going off to college totally unprepared. Why is this kind of behavior allowed? How come nobody does anything about it?

I became angry, not only for myself and my fellow students, but also for the few hardworking teachers I knew who received nothing extra for putting in more effort than the lazy ones. I was talking with my mother about how I felt earlier this year and she told me that the Los Angeles Unified School District was discussing the idea of merit pay. That’s when teachers’ bonuses are tied to students’ test scores. Theoretically, good teachers would get more money and lazy teachers wouldn’t.

As I researched merit pay, I discovered that I seemed to be the only one who liked the idea. The teachers’ union has fought merit pay and made sure it will not be in the new contract that’s being negotiated this fall. Day Higuchi, the head of the union, told the L.A. Times that it will be "a cold day in hell" before teachers get merit pay. I thought he was just trying to protect lazy teachers in his union.

After talking to students and teachers, I began to realize that the problems were more complex than I thought they were, and merit pay might not be able to fix everything. I had thought that bad teachers were just evil people. I had always felt that my fellow students and I had been wronged, but I began to realize that many of my teachers felt frustrated and wronged, too. There are lots of reasons that teachers are ineffective—and being lazy is just one of them. Teachers get paid very little, and experience a biting lack of respect. They have too many students, and students with poor discipline, as well as ineffective and outdated teaching materials. They also often have unmotivated students. Even if teachers get merit pay, it wouldn’t necessarily address all those things.

Mark Bennett, a Curtiss Middle School history teacher told me, "I don’t think it’s gonna make a difference until there is something that the kids are excited about."

Arelly Pineda, a University High student, also thought that student motivation was just as important as having a good teacher. "It [education] also depends on the student."

Orquidea Labrador, a physical education teacher at Marshall High, pointed out that teachers who teach non-academic subjects would not be eligible for merit pay. "How does it affect us?" she asked.

There are also problems with the testing method itself.

The Stanford 9 test—the one most likely to be used to determine merit pay—is full of confusing language and cultural biases, according to an L.A. Times article. So how can student achievement be measured accurately?

One teacher wondered how a single test can determine the depth of learning, or even cover all the areas of study in a classroom. If a teacher spends a lot of class time giving speeches, how will that be tested on the Stanford 9? "How do you unravel the complexity of learning?" asked Brian Wallace, a Garfield High Spanish teacher.

Income levels affect test scores

Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies student Charisse Williams said, "Teachers who teach in poorer areas who could really make a difference won’t be represented by test scores, because their students might not test as highly as children in richer neighborhoods."

"A teacher who is in a lucky position gets more money," said Barry Krugel, a Hollenbeck Middle School history teacher, describing why he opposed it.

Another testing problem is that not all kids take the test in the same school from year to year. They might move, or be absent on the day of the test. Dolores Patton, a teacher at Open Charter Elementary School, said that at her friend’s school, which has 1200 students, only 300 students had taken the test the year before.

LACES student Hannah Farley said, "Test scores don’t have to just do with the teachers. It could be affected by what they [students] ate last night, or for breakfast, or if they were sick or something."

"The idea of merit pay is wonderful, however, there is no way to implement it that’s fair," said Bob Loos, a Hollenbeck Middle School English teacher.

"It’s very easy for politicians to call for merit pay, but very difficult for schools to implement," said Steve Weingarten, press deputy for the teachers’ union.

The points people raise against merit pay—that students are unmotivated, that materials are lacking, that merit pay isn’t fair—are unfortunately true. Yet despite all these arguments, I am even more for merit pay than I was before. Merit pay isn’t meant to correct the problems of old text books or unmotivated students. It is meant to motivate bad teachers to get off their butts and work, and reward good teachers so that they continue working hard. There is no universal solution for the many problems troubling our schools—there are only small steps that can address one problem at a time.

The system we have in place now is not working—so why not try merit pay? The worst thing that could happen is that it wouldn’t work. Then we’d be right back to the drawing board, which is where we are right now. The best thing that could happen is that at least some teachers would be motivated by the thought of extra money—most people are—and try to teach more effectively.

Merit pay might not be fair. But is it fair that students don’t get an education because their teachers are unmotivated?