Merit Pay for Teachers

Writers’ Trigger:

Many thanks to Cheryl Moskowitz who introduced our writers’ group to Margaret Atwood‘s THE TENT, a collection of creative essays, myths and fables. The title is a metaphor for the flimsy fabric that shields those of us inside the tent  from the brutal outside world.

I write “creative” because in the case of the myths and the fables, you recognize the bones, but Atwood has surgically reconfigured the flesh to her own ends. The readings are short -as short as three paragraphs.

The tales are dry, witty, have a bite, and leave you laughing. I’ve underlined portions of every story in the book, so it is difficult to choose a snippet to share. Maybe this from “Life Stories”:

I’m working on my own life story. I don’t mean I’m putting it together; no, I’m taking it apart. It’s mostly a question of editing. If you wanted the narrative line you should have asked earlier, when I still knew everything and was more than willing to tell. That was before I discovered the virtues of scissors, the virtues of matches.

I was born.’  I would have begun, once. But snip, snip away go mother and father, white ribbons of paper blown by the wind, with grandparents tossed out for good measure. ‘I spent my childhood.‘ Enough of that as well. Goodbye dirty little dresses, goodbye scuffed shoes that caused me such anguish, goodbye well-thumbed tears and scabby knees, and sadness worn at the edges.”

We all edit our life story. These lines also remind me of one of my favorite plays, KRAPP’S LAST TAPE by Samuel Beckett. In the play, Krapp listens to reel-to-reel tapes that he recorded over his lifetime. In his dotage, he distractedly shambles about his flat. As I remember, there is no dialogue. The audience only hears the recordings. What the audience sees is that Krapp fast-forwards the tapes when he hears something that he’d rather forget. How perfect is that! Isn’t that what we all do?

If you want to see Krapp’s Last Tape, you can view it by going to The Smithsonian website: where you can watch a 1990 video of the play.

  • Choose a period of your life and write as completely as you can about that period.
  • After you have finished, cross out all the bits you would want to delete, and underline all the bits you would want to embellish.
  • Write the narrative a second time, cutting and embellishing as you have indicated.
  • Or… both Atwood and Beckett wrote about people choosing not to examine their life. Reflect on Socrates’ belief that “an unexamined life is not worth living.”


It is mid-February, and the sun is rising earlier and earlier. The first of the gardening catalogs arrived yesterday, and I am elated. There is nothing like a colorful seed and nursery catalog peppered with pictures of red, orange and yellow bell peppers to whet your appetite for summer.

The flowers are in the back of the catalog. Raised in a family that insisted on my eating my vegetables first, I will save the back of the catalog (that would be the dessert) for later.

Sitting in bed this morning with a cup of coffee and a camera close at hand, I caught the sun as it rose over the Wet Mountains at 7:15 a.m. 

I think there’s a bit of pagan in me. The mere fact that the sun rises every day (not necessarily seen in London but in the sky nonetheless) puts me in a spiritual place. I watch the rising sun – daily noting the time and grateful for the longer days. And appreciative that Colorado days are longer and sunnier than days farther north. The lighting on our neighbor’s elm is dramatic.

Before sunrise, the elm is inky black etched against the dawning sky. But the moment the sun tops the mountains to the east, the branches shimmer iridescent pink. Amazing. Watching the transformation is almost a religious experience.

This week Congress will debate President Obama’s suggested budget cuts. It will be a tough sell because Obama wants to invest in education, innovation, and infrastructure believing that “we can’t sacrifice our future in the process” of cutting the budget.

Meanwhile, here in Colorado, the debate this week is focused on teacher evaluation. It is an old debate, and the lines are drawn. The teachers, most of whom belong to The Colorado Education Association, have fought merit pay for years.

CEA believes that merit pay that rewards some teachers and not others would lead to dissention and jealously which would be detrimental to team building. The union also believes that basing the evaluations on standardized CSAP scores would lead to teachers teaching to the test.

Based on my years as a teacher and ten years of service on the RE-2 Florence/Penrose School Board, I understand both concerns. I am especially sensitive to relying solely on standardized test scores to evaluate teacher effectiveness. Teaching to the test is unfair to the students, unfair to the special education teachers, and overlooks teaching students to think, evaluate, and integrate. 

This week Denver is hosting a U.S. Department of Education confab that will debate all issues relating to tenure, teacher evaluation, and raising student achievement. 148 school districts across the country are in town to take part.

Unfortunately, the state teachers’ union is playing what they hope is their trump card: if merit pay is part of a reform package, they will refuse to support Colorado’s application for 175 million federal dollars that would come to the state through a ‘Race to the Top’ grant.

How short-sighted is that? They are shooting themselves in the foot.

It is true that teachers should not be evaluated on the basis of their students’ standardized test scores, but surely there are other measures of evaluation under consideration. Their fighting for tenure and against performance-based merit pay is bad for education.

You would think that teachers’ unions would rise above protectionist practices. They are teachers, not steel mill workers or farm laborers.

If teachers (and certainly not all teachers, but the ones who support the union’s party-line) care so much about ‘the kids,’ you would think they would come to the table for some give-and-take.

About timeout2

I have lived 100 lives. I write essays, short stories, poetry, grocery lists and notes to myself. If I am ever lost, look for a paper trail, but be careful not to trip over any books that lie scattered here and there. I am a reader. I am a reader in awe of writers. When I don't live in Westcliffe, Colorado, I live in London where I am a long-time member of Word-for-Word - Crouch End.
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2 Responses to Merit Pay for Teachers

  1. Sarah Dembosky says:

    Love you mom… impressed by your writing as usual 🙂

  2. Doris, what can I do to convince you that your “…we all…” is horrible and kills your otherwise good stories? You have started and closed one paragraph with “…we all…” and from that I understand that you think this is a good idea and don’t notice that “…we all…” is a killer. If you are so in love with your killer friend that you don’t want to let him/her go, I am sorry, then I will stop reading your blog.

    Your window is beautiful.

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