Thursday, March 12, 2009

Another Bad Idea: Merit Pay for Teachers

"Teacher unions should not be such willing partners in the merit pay group-speak coming out of Washington."

Teacher unionists are abuzz with the new found attention their profession and their schools are getting from the Obama camp. However, there’s much to raise our concerns, especially the idea that merit pay will make a difference in the quality of teaching and the improved academic achievement in our students.

Over the last generation of teacher unionism, no issues have provoked union leaders more than threats to tenure or the idea of individual merit pay for teachers based on the performance of students. However, because the President said that he would include teachers and their unions in the policy decision-making process, union leadership is giving him a green light on the merit pay concept and AFT/UFT President Randi Weingarten eagerly portrays how her union has embraced a performance-based bonus system in 200 New York City schools.

But teacher unions should not be such willing partners in the merit pay group-speak coming out of Washington, because the concept of merit pay for teachers is fraught with more danger than benefit. If the concept became the norm in our schools, it could set the stage for a Ponzi scheme of supposed academic excellence, in which only a few would benefit, while the rest would find themselves bankrupt.

First of all, Obama is wrong about the research. There is no valid replicable scientific social research out there that proves that individual merit pay will make a positive dent in an objective measure of the overall quality of teaching in a school or school system. It’s mostly intuitive supposition that is based on the “carrot and stick” meme of Western culture. It’s not necessarily a given that the promise of monetary rewards when a goal is reached will improve the quality of the process used to get there.

Secondly, the concept of merit has inherent in it that only a few will benefit. The effect of the promise of financial reward may skew the Bell Curve slightly upward, but most will be in the average range and few will be at the top or the bottom. That’s automatic and it is antithetical to the idea that we must raise all the boats in the harbor. Merit pay is an elitist, anti-union concept that belongs in the tool box of CEO’s, but not in the hands of school systems and governments. Take a look at the stock market, or at our iconic corporate giants, and see where merit pay and bonuses have gotten us.

Embracing a business model for our schools is an idea that’s as defunct as many American businesses and as backward as the 19th Century factory model used to educate our youngsters. Stakeholders, corporate and social, should reconsider the processes used by businesses to achieve their goals and then rethink the ideas behind why we educate our children in the first place. Once we do that, the concept of merit raises for teachers will be a thing of the past.


gary said...

Favoritism has been obvious at every school I have been at in my 30+ year career in NYC schools. Merit pay would only add to the inequities amongst the staff. Obama's position on this was a surprise to hear, and it sounds more like Bush talking.

Anonymous said...

Merit pay, performance pay, eval based pay bands, or whatever you want to call it can work. The way it has been implemented or suggested to function will not work. It's still not a smarter way to pay teachers.

Before we can consider performance pay we need to change the way we assess students and what benchmarks or standards we set as well. I am in favor of a Darling-Hammond deeper and leaner set of standards. Problem solving and analytical based assessments, no more of this multiple choice business.

Basing pay on student scores alone is flawed. Also we must recognize progress where that would be more sensible and high scores where that would.

That brings me to the other merit pay issue. People tend to think we can make some magic formula, plunk in the numbers, and come up with a salary or bonus. That is just not so.

Principal accountability should be a factor as well. I understand that you could pick apart my arguments. I just got through with a huge debate on my blog on this same issue and am not interested in rehashing all of it again.

I just want it to be recognized that there is a smart efficient way to enact a merit pay type system. We just have a lot of work to get there.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. What would you say, then, to the superior teacher who constantly revises her syllabi, teaches more courses, is better qualified and far more intelligent than other colleagues at her school, but who is getting paid far less than the older teachers who are just repeating the same lessons year after year? Why should a teacher like this NOT get a merit raise? If she doesn't get a raise, where is her motivation for continuing her hard work?? Every other profession gives raises based on merit. Only teaching does not. That makes NO sense. If we want our teachers to be the best they can be, offer a carrot on a stick...don't just make them wait 25 years to earn a normal salary!

I understand the argument about merit raises possibly fostering weird competition....but how is this different from any other job?

I have been teaching for five years and I earn a near-poverty-level wage. I bust my rear end. I work all the time. I am possibly the best at my school. Still, though, I earn about half of what some others teachers there do.

I wrote to my school president (independent school) and cited my many reasons for deserving a raise. I was told "as you know, teachers don't get merit-based raises." No, I didn't know that...I thought that all reasonable people understand that superior performance should be rewarded...otherwise, what's the point?

Teacher World said...

I take offense to the annonymous comment from the 5 year veteran. I am one of the "older" teachers this person is referring to, and I resent the implication that we are unmotivated, simply repeating the same, old lesson plans year after year with no desire to learn new techniques or change our teaching strategies. I work just as hard as you do, I am sure, and have always made my job performance and professional growth a top priority. I have seen teachers right out of school who put in less time and effort than I do. Age or tenure have little to do with merit.

One of the issues I have with merit pay is the divisiveness it causes on a staff, as witnessed in this person's comment. Should we really be proclaiming that we are "possibly the best" teacher at our school and begrudging the salaries other staff members earn? This is exactly the attitude that is worrisome when it comes to merit pay.

I might suggest that teachers who really aren't doing their jobs, and we all know there are some of all ages, should not be protected by the teachers union as they are. This is a huge difference between business and education, and it is this policy of protecting the incompetent or unmotivated that hurts our schools.

Magnonymous said...

Effort, time, I do, you do, blah, blah, blah! This type of rhetoric is the heart of the problem. Teachers - this is not a game. This is about our students and what they will or will not be able to do. We are talking about the future of our country! This has nothing to do with the time you put in, the number of college credits you have, or the number of service years. If you are becoming a [measurably] better employee, then you deserve more money. Period.

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