Why Merit Pay Doesn’t Work

by Betsy Ording and Kristy Placido

At first glance, merit pay for teachers and “performance-based layoffs” sound good. Usually the general public and lawmakers are drawn to these ideas. Why not reward employees for a job well done, and when layoffs are necessary, why risk laying off “the best” teachers? But with any amount of close scrutiny, which the general public may not have time for (one would assume our full-time legislature would have time) these ideas are inherently flawed and impossible to implement fairly.

First, there is the research: overwhelming scientific evidence shows that monetary rewards have a negative impact on motivation. Study after study by behavioral economists and psychologists and have shown this to be true. In 1999 Edward Deci and his colleagues published in the scientific journal Psychological Bulletin a meta-analysis of 128 separate studies that showed that financial rewards hurt intrinsic motivation. The best teachers have internal motivation that pushes them to do well.

There have been many instances where merit pay has been tried throughout the last century. School districts that have implemented merit pay, such as New York City, Nashville, and Chicago have seen no gains in student test scores. A study released by Vanderbilt University and the RAND Corporation looking at a “pay-for-performance” program put into place in the Nashville Public Schools from 2007 to 2009 showed no gains in student performance.

Even if it were not for these flaws, legislators, who often know little about teaching, have not thought of all of the variables that will interfere with successful implementation of merit pay and performance-based lay-offs. What will the measurement be? Will this cause even more reliance on testing? Will more teachers teach to the test? What about elective teachers and classes where there simply is no standardized test? (Or will we simply continue to eliminate the arts and other electives from the curriculum?) Who will get to teach the honors classes, in which students will naturally score the highest on state tests? Who would be foolish enough to seek out struggling learners or high-poverty districts?

Perhaps most concerning of all, merit pay and performance-based layoffs will inadvertently create a competitive culture among teachers, quietly pitting them against one another. Why would a teacher want to share his phenomenal “highly effective” lessons with his colleague if he is now competing with her for a job? Under new Michigan legislation that creates performance-based layoffs, this is an obvious outcome. Most teachers are inherently generous and want all students to succeed, and most teachers naturally share ideas and work together. Teachers are not salespeople, competing with colleagues for who can sell the most of a commodity. Collaboration, not competition, leads to better teaching and better schools.

Merit pay for teachers is misguided, and it is misguided to blame the “bad teacher myth” for the woes of American society. Here in the U.S., schools with the highest performing students are schools where the students’ basic needs are met (with little to no poverty). They are schools where parents have the tools they need to help their children succeed. They are schools in which teachers are encouraged to collaborate and share plans and lessons that work, rather than encouraging them to compete with the teacher in the room next door.

How do we solve the “crisis in public education?” Look to Finland, the nation with the highest student achievement in the world. In Finland, all new mothers are provided with a care package of clothing, bedding, books, toys, diapers and condoms. These kits have been credited with dramatically lowering infant mortality rates. Both parents are eligible for extensive parental leave. All children in Finland have access to government-funded high-quality preschool and kindergarten. Finnish teachers are 100% unionized, well-paid and highly trained. If we wish to have world-class schools, we must be willing to invest as a nation. We cannot ignore childhood poverty and malnutrition and expect students to come to school ready to learn. We cannot continue to batter and bruise our public teachers and expect the best and brightest to be attracted to the field. Merit pay is not the solution to these problems. It is simply one more bad idea that will drive more teachers away from a noble calling.

Teaching, Pirates, and Blackberries

Photo by Thomas Pix

This week I read the book Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess. So, I know it was a great book because it got me thinking and has KEPT me thinking! Today, as I was following one of my passions (puttering around aimlessly among the living things in my yard) I was really thinking about what I had read and how it relates to my teaching. As I was doing all this thinking I noticed there were some very FAT wild blackberries growing next to my compost bin. These are here every summer and I usually pick a few, but since I was away last week it was like they just suddenly had exploded! I went inside and grabbed a bowl and set out to picking them. As I was picking that area clean, I looked up and saw on the other side of the compost bin, pinned between a white pine and a fence were some of the fattest, blackest, juiciest berries I have ever seen! I REALLY wanted those berries! But there was no way I could reach them. My arms weren’t long enough. The compost was kind of stinky and buggy. There were too many picky berry canes and pine branches. But I decided the berries were mine and I was going to find a way to have them!

So, I found a long board and made a platform on the compost bin. I stood on it, the plastic bin buckling a bit. I was picturing my conversation with the emergency room staff. As I was picking those berries I saw a few more just a little bit out of my reach. Suddenly they looked like the BEST berries! I wanted them.

This all got me to thinking that my experience picking berries was a lot like teaching and learning. A few observations:

1. If someone had told me to go out and pick blackberries I probably would have balked at it. But I saw them and I wanted them. I liked the idea that I could get something amazing from my OWN yard. I could have just gone to the grocery store and picked up some adequate berries. But I was motivated because it was something I had decided for myself was important.

2. I noticed that on each little bunch of berries there were several berries at all different stages of development. Usually one or two were totally ready to be picked, a couple were ok but would be better in a couple of days, and then there were lots of pinkish or even greener berries. Occasionally I would hit on a wonderful bunch of several ripe berries that would make picking super easy. Aren’t our classrooms kind of like that? How would we approach teaching differently if we saw our students like those bunches of berries? All are going to eventually make it, but they go at different paces. Of course a few might get plucked up by a bird…

3. When you really want something, sometimes you have to work at it. I had to improvise a bit today with those berries. I got scratched, got some mosquito bites, and squished a few with poor picking technique. I attempted to injure myself by climbing into a precarious spot, I realized going THROUGH the pines wouldn’t work and had to turn around, and I ultimately did end up trespassing a little. But in the end, I got really satisfying results! It was work but worth it!

4. Sometimes the best opportunities are in unexpected places. My compost bin is pretty gross on any given day. I am not at all good about turning it or putting any kind of thought into the ratios of the types of items going into it. It sometimes smells, and usually has a fair amount of flies and mosquitoes around it. But the best berries weren’t in the sunny open spots, or along the fence row dividing my yard from the corn field. The best berries of all were in a really gross place. Don’t be afraid to be a little edgy to get to the juiciest learning. This year in my class we did a Harlem Shake (and I was asked nicely to remove it from the internet by my boss), we had swordfights in class, we learned about living in a municipal garbage dump, studied dancing Mexican cowboys with outrageously long pointy boots, and we had an entire unit based on the supernatural. I had a kid whose job it was to yell out “Qué asco!” (How disgusting!) at any moment he deemed appropriate. I had a girl who was a self-appointed queen who wore a crown, and sat on a throne made of five chairs stacked together. At first glance some of this stuff might seem a little weird, but I guarantee you the kids will remember that stuff. Don’t be afraid of the compost bin.

5. Tomorrow there will be more opportunities. Not every day is a great day. In fact most days are  just ok. Mostly pleasant and enjoyable but not shout from the rooftops amazing. I get a fresh chance the next day to go in and facilitate some learning. And tomorrow afternoon there will be more fresh ripe juicy berries for me to collect!

6. Excuses are just excuses. You can find away around problems. There were a LOT of reasons to just forget about the stupid berries. Namely my health and safety! But I’m fine! And I have a nice quart of blackberries to show for my efforts! Dave Burgess talked about the “6 words.” (Buy the book and find out what they are!) When I am presenting workshops, I hear a lot of people make similar excuses for why they can’t use TPRS in their world language classes (usually in a private conversation at lunch, or during a break). I hear “I don’t have the personality to pull this off.” or “I don’t think my students would get into this.” or “This just seems like it would get tiring.” You know what is tiring? Teaching for 35 years and not enjoying your job! You don’t know if you can do something until you try, and doing something awesome OK is better than doing something mediocre really well, right?

So, please, get yourself a delicious snack (I recommend blackberries), read Teach Like a Pirate, and start getting your mojo ready for the upcoming school year! I hope to see some of you next week in San Diego at the iFLT conference!

P.S. I can lend my Kindle copy of Teach Like a Pirate to one person free for 14 days. If you would like to borrow my Kindle copy and you PROMISE you will read it, please e-mail me (placidok at gmail dot com) and it is yours. I will lend it to the first person to e-mail me about it. 🙂 CLAIMED!


In defense of worksheets and packets

Photo by Seiichi Kusunoki
Photo by Seiichi Kusunoki

I wanted to leave a comment here: http://mrschultsocialstudies.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/worksheets-on-worksheets-on-worksheets/ but it turned into a blog post of its own!

First of all, for the most part I agree with Mr. Schult! Students should be interacting, problem solving, creatively thinking, and using technology!

But there are a few points I’d like to make.

1. Worksheets or packets are not inherently bad. Yesterday my Spanish 1 students began with a quick warmup where they had to decide which character in a Spanish reader had made each of 10 statements. I projected it rather than photocopying in, I did not require them to copy down the sentences, and I encouraged them to collaborate. It took 5 minutes and activated some vocabulary and prior knowledge. Was this bad?

2. Sometimes I do need to disseminate information. Not everything can be discovered on one’s own. In a “work environment” there are many times when you simply read a memo, a handbook or manual, or are told (lecture format?) how to do something. In a “work environment” you don’t always get to ask questions or explore alternative ideas. Sometimes you simply get the information and carry out a task. Ask anyone you know with a job.

3. Sometimes we do need to all work on the same thing. In Spanish class, I am building vocabulary from zero, and it is quite helpful for students to all have a common thread of vocabulary. They would NOT be able to converse on any random topic in level 1!

4. I do use the copier. I create reading handouts and music packets. This allows us to read the same things and learn the same songs. I also give study guides. The main reason for this is that I have numerous students on 504 plans or IEPs that require me to do this. So to make life easier, I just make them available to everyone. I do give a minuscule amount of points for turning it in, and I do not allow retakes on the test for anyone who did not turn it in. This is more about CYA and being stingy with my own time in allowing test retakes than about pedagogical choices. I’d love to hear what others think about this!

5. Do I still engage kids in class face-to-face? I think so. I don’t ever “lecture.” I co-create stories with the kids. We read and discuss little novels. We look at photos, learn about culture, sample foods, and discuss. I have them re-tell stories in pairs or groups. By level 2 we move to more spontaneous discussions. By levels 3 and 4 they are making some serious connections with the world.

6. Finally, I would like to address the issue of technology. I love it. It is helpful, wonderful, amazing. But don’t assume everyone has it. Our school had no wifi until THIS year. We have 2 computer labs where the computers are half-dismantled and there are not enough computers if you have more than 28 kids in a class. The filters are so restrictive it is a joke. The computers are slow, freeze up, and frustrate. I try having kids BYOD, but about 1/2 the kids, especially my freshmen, do not have a D to B. Still, I try. I’ve even allowed kids to use my personal iPhone to record videos or chat on Today’s Meet. But it is not easy. I just think the air of judgement over those not using tech should be toned down across the board and especially across the Twitterverse. I know some pretty amazing teachers who are not much into technology and that is ok.

The Unconference Unyelp Review #edcampdetroit

So, this blog post has been running through my head for a few weeks now, ever since I attended my very first EdCamp in Detroit. I tweeted a little bit about it, but I felt I needed to put my thoughts in writing. Sometimes I am not exactly sure how I feel about something until I have written about it!

I was really excited about this “unconference” experience. I am generally a person who really loves conferences, and since this was billed as even better, I was pumped! Plus I looked at it as a way to connect more with some local teachers.

I’d like to just list some of my impressions…

The whole thing was free, including parking! Excellent!

Bathrooms were not functioning on our floor. Signage needed!

Very awesome spread of Panera bagels and Starbucks coffee. Nice!

I wish I had known that the first 2 hours were simply waiting for people to sign up for presentation slots and milling around. I would have slept in! Newbies!

As my colleague and I sat waiting for the unconference to begin, two different people approached us, told us a little about what was going on, and generally made sure we felt comfortable and included. That was really nice!

Many of the session slots filled up quite quickly. They added another room. I like the flexibility in that.

For supposedly being an “unconference” it seemed strangely a lot like a conference.

Many presenters clearly had their presentations all mapped out. They had catchy titles for their sessions. I even saw a couple of powerpoints. I mean, I don’t care, but then don’t act like this is a revolutionary conference.

Although everyone was very nice, a few people seemed to be a little overbearing in their domination of the conversations. I get it, you are a good teacher. But how about you be quiet and listen for a few minutes? Stop trying to formulate your next point while the other person is speaking. It is a conversation, not a debate.

People here seemed very clique-y. There was definitely an “in crowd.” Maybe I am just jealous. And if you are going to sit in a session and have a running conversation with your friends, how about you take it to the café across the street? That behavior is rude, even at an unconference.

Vote with your feet wasn’t working. Most people were NOT voting with their feet. And I looked around and I could see that people WANTED to but were holding back. In one session, the presenter (and I definitely DO mean presenter–straight-up lecture format) spent quite a lengthy time standing right next to the door on the side of the room. I felt trapped! In 2 other sessions the furniture was packed in the room and there were a lot of people, meaning it would have been completely awkward/impossible to get up and leave.

There seemed to be a lot of “yay us!” cheerleading. Repeated accolades about how wonderful we all are for giving up our Saturday, and how revolutionary we are. Ok, I like myself too. Now let’s stop talking about it.

There seemed to be a lot of “conventional wisdom” here. “Hand raising? Psht! That’s so old school. What kind of Nazi makes kids raise hands?”  “Using the same lesson plans again? Whatevs. My kids explore organically.” “Teacher talk is so 1960s. My kids have no idea what my voice sounds like. If I need to speak, my Voki does it for me!” Ok, I am being a little snotty, but seriously some people seemed a little dismissive of those who weren’t teched-out flippers with free-range students!

Basically, I think EdCamp is a step in the right direction, but could be better. I was not blown away by it, and I do not think it is vastly superior to the experiences I’ve had at “regular” conferences. In fact, I have had many much better experiences at regular conferences.

I’d like to thank @michellek107 for sharing some great reading with me on this subject!



Top 10 reasons your TPRS story just bombed

¡Ay, ay, ay! The story bombed!

This is such a great question! When you first start TPRS, it is such a high! The kids like it, they participate, you feel like you are entertaining them, it is great! But then…one day…you fall so completely on your face that you can’t even remember what you did the other times that made it so magical.

So, first of all, let’s just have a reality check. Does the geometry teacher get upset if class is boring one day? Or the chemistry teacher? Or the American history teacher? Most other teachers just accept that class is what it is. Students are there to work, not to be entertained. Most teachers don’t even consider entertainment part of their job! So, don’t get upset because you had a bunch of good days and then you have an off day (or a bunch of off days!).

Ok, so now that we are feeling a little more grounded in reality, let’s face it, most of us sought out TPRS because we like our students and we like teaching and we want our students to think learning to speak another language is FUN! We strive for those “home run” lessons when everyone is so into it that the bell cuts you off and the kids say “Awwww, I was having fun!”

What are some possible causes of a story that bombs? Believe me when I tell you that I speak from experience! I have had a lot of success but only through lots and lots of failure with this method did I get pretty good at it!

Here is my official “Placido’s Top 10 Reasons Your Story Just Bombed”:

10. Focusing on the curriculum more than the kids.

When you stress because you didn’t include the 3rd sturcture you had planned to teach today, you start trying to “force” the story and it shows. If some of the vocab isn’t gelling, maybe just come back to those words another day. The important part of all of this is providing Compelling, Contextualize, Comprehensible Input (Not just CI, CCCI is even better! This is a Carol Gaab term and I love it!).

9. Trying to get to “cute” and making the story complicated.

Most of my best stories are completely NOT plot-driven. They are lazy little vignettes, scenarios, or character descriptions. It is ridiculous how entertaining these little scenarios can get and they have no plot whatsoever. Forget trying to create a bestseller. It isn’t happening. A better bet is to type up a cute little story based on what you and your students chatted about and use it the next day as a reading.

8. Trying to control the story too much.

If you go in to the story with it all planned out, you will end up driving the story forward too quickly. If you are new, however, this is super scary territory. One thing you might try is scripting the story out “Mad libs” style. This reminds you to let the kids create the details, while you eliminate the stress of having to be creative on the spot.

7. Not controlling the story enough.

Most inexperienced TPRS teachers cannot successfully wing it completely. I can but usually because I have taught those words many many times and I can remember what worked in the past! I recommend at least having a skeleton idea of a story in mind!

6. Allowing kids to be passive.

Coach the kids on the behavior you want to see. Make them verbally reply to your questions. Give them a signal that means “I don’t understand.” (In my class the signal is hitting your open hand with the opposite fist.) Get the kids to respond with ooohs, ahhhs, and fun catch-phrases. Perhaps designate certain kids to use certain phrases at key moments. Designate a kid to knock on the table to simulate the sound of knocking at the door, or cry like a baby, or howl like a wolf. It gives that one goofy off-task kid a job and makes the class more entertaining!

5. Getting into a rut.

Another phrase my good buddy Carol Gaab always says is “Brains crave novelty.” As a teacher I believe that. Be surprising! Do off-beat and unexpected things. Pull out ONE really weird or funny prop and plan to use it that day. Joe Neilson at Salpointe Catholic High in Tucson teaches a story about a bad baby. He has a totally creepy and disgusting looking old baby doll that he uses. It has a bit of shock value and it produces results! When my classes read “Los Baker van a Peru” I have a plastic onion that a student doodled a face on (he was being a little naughty but it was ok) that we use as a shrunken head! It gets a laugh! Try showing a quick video clip, a neat authentic resource (search #authres on twitter), or use a fun online resource like JibJab or Photopeach to create something fun really quickly.

4. Being too repetitive with structures the kids already know.

You shouldn’t be circling “There is a boy” unless it is day one of level 1. Circle the NEW structures only! Make sure you are circling ALL parts of the sentence too!

3. Failure to personalize.

Personalization is key. Talk to the kids about THEM and their friends and things they like. All day, everyday. Repeat 180 times and you’ve got happy fluent kids.

2. Not suspending your own disbelief.

You have to act like all of this crazy stuff is true. Act surprised, scared, etc. Be melodramatic. How will the kids believe it or be into it if you are not?


1.  Going too fast

Slow down and then slow down even more. Speak slowly and clearly. Pause and point. Do comprehension checks. Remind kids of the signal for “I don’t understand.” Did I mention you should slow down?

Hopefully that helps? If you are reading this and think of other factors in a story bombing, please leave me a comment!

So many possibilities, so little time!

Do you ever feel like you could be a really amazing teacher if only you had the time? I feel pretty good in general, but I always feel like I am playing catchup. If things are going well at school, all it takes is a discipline issue to subvert the hard work I’ve done. Or a fire drill, or a technology glitch, or any number of crazy things that can happen every day!

Not to mention the demands on my time that I post learning targets, create formative assessment tools, submit lesson plans, report athletic eligibility, yadda yadda.

How do YOU balance it all? Do you accept “good enough” as good enough? Do you feel frustrated like me that you can’t soar as high as you’d like because of all the limitations of your situation?

I just need like 5 extra hours in my day and I think I can do it!

Spanish Village

Spanish Village is a long-time tradition in my school. I teach at my alma mater, and I’ll just say that when I was a freshman in 1989 the activity seemed to have already been done many times!

In May of each year, we celebrate the culmination of another year of Spanish study with a day of Spanish immersion, music, food, and fun.  It started out with a few kids in a classroom and has grown to a huge event that takes over the lobby of our performing arts center for a day.

Students in Spanish 3 and 4 are the “townspeople” and in groups of 2-3 they create stores, community services and attractions which can be visited by their classmates in Spanish 1 and 2.

The level 1 and 2 students each have a passport, and included with the passport are a list of tasks which must be completed in order to receive stamps on the passport.

Spanish 3 and 4 students spend all day putting on this event, and level 1 and 2 students visit only for their assigned class hour.  All Spanish is expected to be spoken and grade penalties are given for those speaking English.

El Cine where students view student-created cinematic awesomeness!
La cafetería for the finest cuisine!
La farmacia will cure what ails you!
One stop shopping at Spanish Village!

Level 4 Spanish Civil War / Art / Film unit

Recently my level 4 Spanish class finished up a study of the Spanish Civil War and Franco. It was a lengthy unit, which encompassed a novel study last semester, and then continued into the current semester with a film and art study. I was really pleased with the learning that took place, the increased ability of my students to discuss more advanced topics (these are 4th year students, but not pre-AP. Most of them are just interested in Spanish and not all are even college bound kids.), and what seems to be a genuine appreciation for the struggles of the Spanish people, the understanding of the concept of fascism, the understanding of left-wing versus right-wing, and the concept of film and art as a powerful political statement rather than simply entertainment or beauty.

I’d like to share an overview of what we did, much of which unfolded as a result of some really powerful collaboration with my colleague Carrie Toth (@senoraCMT). I am so grateful to know her and call her my friend!


La hija del sastre
García Lorca Biography Packet


Article on Spain’s Falsified Adoptions under Franco


La lengua de las mariposas

El espinazo del diablo

El laberinto del fauno


Guernica by Pablo Picasso in 3D

El Ambidiestro

Students kept journals, we did lots of discussion, and they also were told to look for imagery and especially what they believed might be symbolism. We kept track of the powerful images that were common across more than one of the items we viewed or read. Students practiced speaking about the imagery with an inside-outside circle activity.

Finally, after studying the painting Guernica by Picasso, students were given time to create their own art representative of what they knew about the events and consequences of the civil war for the people of Spain. Once their art was finished, we displayed it in a “gallery” (a large open unused choir room in our school!), complete with tapas (ok, popcorn, chips and oreos, but it was a nice thought!). Students were divided, each group had 10 min to circulate and talk with others, 10 minutes to stand near own art. All talking in Spanish. I circulated asking questions to help them refine their own thoughts and statements. At the end, they had to describe their art to me in Spanish (via cell phone using Google voice), and then were randomly assigned to the art of another student to describe or discuss in Spanish.

Here is a video of two of my students describing art created by their classmates.

Playing the game when you have to cram information

An e-mail I got today:


My name is ********* ********* and I use your books to teach my Spanish classes. I have a question to ask and because I use your books, I chose you – lucky you. If you have the time to answer, I would appreciate your help.

Do you worry about covering thematic vocabulary? If you do, how and when do you do this? Do you try to make it fit in with your chapters or do you teach it separately? I’m scared that I’m not getting in the vocabulary that I should teach. Is there a guide somewhere that says how many words a student should learn in a semester or year? Thank you so much.

My reply:

Dear ********* *********,

I don’t believe there is any such guide telling you how much vocab students must learn in a year, and I do believe that major textbook publishers like EMC, etc would have you believe it is a MUCH higher number than is generally comfortable processing for a student.  They do that because they want teachers to feel like they are getting a “good deal.”

You need to look at your district’s curriculum guide and if you do not have one, are your students taking a common assessment with another class that is “learning” more vocab?

Personally, I do have a couple of thematic topical vocab units that I am forced to cram onto opt to teach my students whenever I am sharing sections of the same course with another teacher who is heavily thematic topical.  (I am a thematic teacher, however my themes are things such as “Immigration,” and “Traveling as an exchange student” and “living during a civil war.” We are talking here about topics such as “adjectives, home furnishings, animals, and the dreaded much anticipated amusement park rides unit.”)

What I generally do in this situation is use quizlet.com and make lots of flashcards (I shell out the extra $10 a year to be able to upload pictures of the vocab).  Here is my account: http://quizlet.com/user/placido/

Quizlet offers several study or game options!

I go through the flashcards with the whole class for about 5 minutes a day on my projector, and also have them take a day and play the quizlet games in the computer lab. They then have to practice at home (wow, I think I invented the flipped classroom!). Once each student feels he or she knows all of the words well, he or she comes to my desk and takes a quick assessment (I allow the students to decide when they are ready).  I randomly show them 10 different flashcards and they have to say the word.

So, ask yourself…what or who is making you scared?  If it is just your internal voice, tell it to stop and keep doing comprehensible input with small chunks of vocabulary every day.  If it is an external pressure, ask yourself if it has the power to do harm to you if you don’t give in.  If it has that power, play the little game and cram some vocab every now and then.  If it has no power, keep doing comprehensible input with small chunks of vocabulary every day.

Best of luck to you!