Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Jeff Bezos On Why Merit Pay Won't Work (Sort Of)

While I'm on break, I'm trying to do some reading for pleasure, including some reading of actual books. That's something I find hard to do while school is in, much as I love to read. I have a Kindle, Amazon's e-reader, and I might read one or two new books on it. I'm still getting used to it, but I like playing with it as much as I like reading things on it.

I was reading this article from Slate.com that includes a fairly lengthy interview with Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon. Much of the interview focuses on the Kindle itself, but Bezos also talks about Amazon's general business strategy. When asked how Amazon managed to have a successful year despite the poor economy, he responds:

It is the basics. It is focusing on selection, low prices, and reliable, convenient, fast delivery. It's the cumulative effect of having this approach for 14 years. I always tell people, if we have a good quarter it's because of the work we did three, four, and five years ago. It's not because we did a good job this quarter.

As you can imagine, this immediately spoke to me as a teacher--not only because we're trying to help students see the long-term effects and value of diligence, attention, and sustained achievement, but also because our success with our students is always cumulative. Pissed Off Teacher can't teach calculus to students who haven't mastered basic algebra; NYC Educator can't teach newcomers to the United States how to speak English unless they can already communicate in some language. And when my students showed great improvement on the state ELA exam last year, I knew most of the credit had to go to their elementary and earlier middle school teachers. How could I have taught advanced essay writing skills to students who couldn't read or write a simple sentence?

This is why merit pay, as most "reformers" imagine it, won't work. I would not feel comfortable accepting money that had only partially to do with any work I might have done, even if it was very good and helpful work. That work would not have been possible without people who were just as dedicated coming before me. Just as Bezos said, I don't fool myself that the good work my students do is all because of the awe-inspiring time (ha ha!) they spend in my classroom. When we start to think that way, we buy into the idea of teacher-as-hero (or, perhaps more accurately, teacher-as-martyr) who can make his or her students do anything. Rather, we are one piece of the puzzle--an important piece for sure, and the only piece we ourselves can control--but only one piece.
blog comments powered by Disqus