Merit Pay

As the idea of merit pay sweeps the nation, and the federal government is pushing the idea down the throats of the states using the old carrot/stick approach, I have been thinking much about this topic. Florida is about to vote on such a bill, tying teacher pay to test scores.

Merit pay is popular in part because on the surface it has such a ring of fairness. Shouldn’t better teachers get rewarded for it? However, in reality, it is fraught with many complications and difficulties.

The issue also gets further confused as there are really two issues. One is teacher evaluation and the other is teacher compensation. Without a fair way to evaluate teachers, merit pay cannot be fair.

Some people complain that current teacher evaluation systems are poor. Usually a principal announces they will come in and observe. The principal makes notes and bases the teacher’s evaluation to a large part on this single observation. Often this happens only once every other year for experienced teachers. I would agree that this method is lacking—but that makes the idea of merit pay more, not less problematic. People also complain that bad teachers are allowed to keep teaching and impossible to fire. That is mostly a gross exaggeration. The problem is that in part it is based on that few are “fired” in the technical sense of the word that would show up on public records. That is because at least 9 out of 10 times, the teacher resigns before being fired. That is typical in any field. Certainly in any professional field I have ever heard of, the employee in danger of being fired is generally encouraged to resign, sparing the employer of the legal steps of actually firing the person, and sparing the employee of having it on their record. All the principals that I admire tell me that they can and do get rid of the teachers they think are not serving the students. While it is not easy, why should it be? If a principal could easily fire any teacher, it would make teaching a risky profession, especially for those with interesting ideas. Fear is never a good long term motivator. Teacher “tenure” (it is not actually technically “tenure”) just means that due process must be observed. Is due process a good thing or not?

But back to merit pay. Shouldn’t teachers get paid more for being better? First off, who get to decide who is better and how? Test scores seem to be the idea in vogue. That is what they are proposing in Florida, and already using in various places. However, our current testing system tests only a tiny fraction of what is important for children to know (and does so in such a poor way). In elementary schools it is rote math and reading skills. That is it. Basing pay on just that would encourage teachers even more than they already are to only focus on what is likely to be on the test, at the expense of everything else (many elementary school, due to NCLB have already reduced the curriculum to almost only these two areas). There is an axiom in the social sciences known as Campbell’s Law that says that the higher the stakes on a particular social indicator (e.g. a single test score), the more the use of that indicator corrupts the original intent, as it encourages people to manipulate the system to look good on that indicator regardless of other effects. We see that happening already—retaining students so they take the easier test; pushing kids to disappear from the system. There is the focus on the kids that show the most promise of moving from one category to the next, while ignoring others. Not to mention the examples of out and out cheating—changing test answers and such. Teachers start to resent the “low” students” the “slow” students, as they put their pay or job in danger, rather than being seen as a challenge, as the place to make a real difference.

There is also the issue of motivation. Merit pay is seen as a way to motivate teachers to work harder. When most of us think of motivation, we often think of rewards. However, the most effective motivation is actually not extrinsic rewards. The most effective motivation is the enjoyment or intrinsic reward of the activity itself. Virtually all teachers go into teaching because they want to make a difference in their students lives, to be successful teachers—not for the great pay! What psychological theory has demonstrated again and again is that the more you externally reward someone for what they find intrinsically motivating, the less motivated they become for the thing itself, as the reward replaces their intrinsic motivation. They no longer care if the results are real, as long as they get the reward. Recent studies have demonstrated that bonuses in business are actually likely to make workers less, not more productive. Extrinsic rewards actually lead to less intrinsic interest in a job well done, not more.

School reform research has shown that the most effective school are those where teachers work together closely and have a shared vision. But merit pay is likely to increase competition among teachers, discouraging collaboration. In today’s climate of limited resources, if one teacher gets a bonus, it comes from the pool that everyone gets paid from, pitting teachers against each other for these limited resources. It becomes in my self interest to sabotage the other teachers to increase my chances of getting that money, or at least not to help them.

It is a truism that teachers are underpaid. Despite that, there is no compelling evidence that teachers leave the field over issues of pay, or that more pay gets them to work harder. It is possible we might attract a higher quality pool of candidates if teacher pay was significantly higher. However, in studies of what makes teachers satisfied or dissatisfied with their job, other working conditions are much higher on the list. How they are treated, what types of autonomy they have, what types of support they receive, resources, class sizes, and leadership all rate higher than issues of pay.

Mostly, merit pay is a side show, a distraction to any real answer to solving the difficult problems of educational reform. It is another quick fix solution that can be used to undermine teachers and the unions that represent them in the move to privatize schooling.

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