Read This: Merit Pay for Teachers a Poor Idea

Merit pay plans are less common in the private sector than people think, research shows. Only one in seven employees is covered by a merit pay plan and most of those workers are in real estate or sales.

via www.huffingtonpost.com

I've spent the past decade cringing in conversations about merit pay for teachers simply because:

I'm bugged by the fact that one test at the beginning of June becomes the indicator of my "performance" while almost 60 percent of the professionals in my building work in positions that are not judged by standardized tests. Call it jealousy if you want to.

I fully realize that the FIVE other teachers my middle school language arts students work with each day have an impact—whether it's positive or negative—on my students' reading scores. Why should I get full credit or blame for those numbers?

I know the damage that merit pay plans will have on collaborative efforts in schools. Why in WORLD would I ever share what I know about effective teaching and learning if I know that I'm competing over a small pot of money with my peers?


But every time that I lay out my case against merit pay in education
, some spittle-flinging political rube starts shouting about how merit pay has "revolutionized American industry," leading to "more production" and "motivated workers."

"If our schools acted more like our businesses, we'd be competitive internationally!" the argument—usually introduced by some guy with no experience in education who happened to get elected by an under-informed pitchfork wielding mob—goes.

Consider THAT myth dispelled!

Not only do recognized experts on motivation like Daniel Pink believe that merit pay plans are ineffective in knowledge-driven businesses, FEW professionals in the business sector work under merit pay plans—unless they're selling houses or cars, professions where workers have always been independent operators.

NOW can we stop talking about merit pay plans that reward individual teachers based on test scores?

I'm all about restructuring the way that teachers are rewarded and I believe the single-salary schedule results in some teachers being unfairly rewarded and other teachers being unfairly under-rewarded, but restructuring salaries just ain't as easy as Mr. Pitchfork Man thinks it is!

7 comments

  1. Bill Ferriter

    K wrote:
    I scratch my head over a profession that can devise and/or employ rubrics to assess student performance on various skills, tasks and other objectives and can’t find a way to grade or assess those who occupy it.
    Here’s the thing, K: Educators are rarely involved in conversations about evaluation and compensation. Those decisions are made by state—and sometimes federal—officials that generally have no knowledge of what works in schools.
    Even when teachers are invited to raise their voices, they are generally ignored.
    Heck, my colleagues in the Teacher Leaders Network worked hard to schedule a conference call with Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, and even HE ignored them:
    http://snipurl.com/wshq4
    So I agree with you—we could do a better job developing systems to evaluate and reward teachers than policymakers can—and contrary to what the right wing media reports, teachers AND their unions are ready for changes.
    The problem is that no one is listening….and we don’t have the organizational power to make the changes on our own.
    Any of this make sense,
    Bill

  2. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    How can it be that we seem to be left between two terrible choices?
    Either teachers are paid based on years in service or based on a single end of year test score.
    Do you know a great teacher when you see them? How would you describe the great teacher if you do?
    Teachers commit to assessing the performance of others each and every day.
    I scratch my head over a profession that can devise and/or employ rubrics to assess student performance on various skills, tasks and other objectives and can’t find a way to grade or assess those who occupy it.

  3. Bern

    Yeah Bill,
    I hear you. Over here in Australia we have a National Test called NAPLAN, and this one day test a year in May is used as Data on a National my schools web site, and the school is ranked with like schools. We are also heading towards merit pay and of course it will be judged on that performance! Not on the million and one other things you do holistically for a student. I teach primary so we TRY to teach ALL the key learning areas with an extremely crowded curriculum. Collaboration is what makes teaching better, but not enough time is given for it, but hey who listens to us!!!

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Matt asked:
    While I don’t disagree with this premise, I believe it is only valid because the piloted merit pay systems have only used a finite amount of money to “reward” teachers. Would you view point change (if only a small amount) if a non-competitive existed to earn a presumably infinite amount of money?
    Interesting questions, Matt.
    I think my first reaction is that there will never be a merit pay program in education with in infinite amount of money!
    Even districts that built a program around the premise that the pot of cash would be infinite would eventually struggle to make their payouts. Then, they’ll either make it impossible to earn the bonus or they’ll collapse the program completely.
    That’s what happened with state stipends for National Board Certification here in the South. Almost every state was offering salary bonuses for certification until they realized just how many teachers would take them up on the offer. Then, many states pulled the plug.
    Even if the money was infinite, I still wouldn’t support merit pay for individual teachers simply because it doesn’t reward the kinds of behaviors that we know make a difference for every child in a school.
    I mean, I want to see collaboration happening across classrooms. I want to see teachers supporting their peers. I want to see best practices being identified and amplified.
    If we’ve got a finite amount of money, let’s start rewarding those behaviors. Why can’t collaborative teams be developed with members from different disciplines and subject areas, students assigned to those teams, and then rewards be given to the entire team instead of to reading and math teachers?
    If I knew that my bonus was dependent on the scores that students in your class were making, I’d be far more likely to help you!
    Incentivize collaboration and you’re more likely to see responsible practices spread.
    Does this make sense?
    Bill

  5. Matt Townsley

    Bill, you said, “Why in WORLD would I ever share what I know about effective teaching and learning if I know that I’m competing over a small pot of money with my peers?”
    While I don’t disagree with this premise, I believe it is only valid because the piloted merit pay systems have only used a finite amount of money to “reward” teachers. Would you view point change (if only a small amount) if a non-competitive existed to earn a presumably infinite amount of money?
    On the flip side, a friend of mine is a software engineer (read: computer programmer) at a firm that contracts with the federal government. Promotions to higher pay scales are only given out to a finite amount of individuals each year. In other words, there’s only one way to earn more than the standard/across-the-board raise: perform better than his peers according to management review. Yes, I realize it is only a single example, but felt it was worth sharing, too.

  6. Ryan Collins

    Read Daniel Pink’s book Drive and you’ll realize that merit pay would actually have a detrimental affect on the education of students.
    The book covers studies of motivation, showing that for almost all tasks that require cognitive skills are adversely affected by the promise of rewards.
    From the book:
    “When money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest for the activity,” he wrote. Rewards can deliver a short-term boost—just as a jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking for a few more hours. But the effect wears off—and worse, can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue the project.
    And:
    Goals that people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy. But goals imposed by others—sales targets, quarterly returns, standardized test scores, and so on—can sometimes have dangerous side effects.
    Finally:
    That’s why schoolchildren who are paid to solve problems typically choose easier problems and therefore learn less.

  7. Ballantynedj

    Great post! You allude to the fallacies in the neo-liberal worldview that assumes market mechanisms are suitable for solving public policy issues. I hope there aren’t too many “rubes” in positions of influence that have swallowed this whole… i shudder at the implications for education.