A critique of merit pay (Part 1 of 3)

This entry is part one of a three-part series of somewhat-related entries I’ve written on education reform.

Merit pay is one of the big topics in education today.  The basic premise of the idea is as follows:

  1. Teachers should get paid based on performance.  It makes no sense that superstar teachers should get paid the same amount as struggling teachers.  We should incentive great performance.
  2. Teachers will teach better if they know there is financial incentive.
  3. With merit pay, higher performing individuals will be retained, and a better talent pool will be attracted.
  4. In this new environment, people will be competing to do what’s best for the children, both inside of schools and between schools, and the children will be the primary beneficiaries.

In regards to point #1, I believe that good performance should be rewarded, don’t get me wrong.  However, although the rest of the rationale seems completely logical at first glance, it leaves out important considerations.  How do you evaluate performance?  It’s one of those things where most people say, “I don’t know, but I know it when I see it”.

In education, evaluating performance is particularly difficult, both for schools and teachers.  Every school gets dealt a completely unique hand, demographically speaking.  How do you take that into account when evaluating a school?  What is the incentive to work at a more challenging school, when you know that you are far more likely to inherit and encounter unquantifiable challenges that make achieving at a high level more difficult?  What you really want is to get your best teachers to the most challenging situations, but what you don’t want is a “musical chairs” situation, where everyone is running around chasing the money from school to school.

Point #2 is premised on the idea that teachers decide how much to work based on compensation.  This may be true for some, but I know I didn’t enter the teaching profession to make money.  I had other higher-paying options, but I chose to teach because I thought it was an important thing to do.  I believe that most teachers teach primarily because they want to make a positive impact on children.  In fact, they prove it when they bring supplies to school, which they pay for out of their own paycheck.  In this way, teaching is quite different from high-stakes merit-pay occupations, such as law, sales, banking, and pro sports, where money is the primary reward.

As for point #3, say what you will about Teach For America, but there’s no question that they have proved that elite college graduates can be attracted to teaching without offering buckets of money.  In fact, TFA rejects about 6 out of 7 applicants.  People are beating down the door to get into teaching.  Granted, not all of them want to be lifelong teachers, but many of them are open to that possibility.  I can only speak to my own motivations for entering the teaching profession, but I know I speak on behalf of many other teachers I know when I say that the vast majority of us left inner-city teaching not because lack of money, but because of frustration and burnout.  I don’t know a single person who cited money as a driving force for leaving the classroom.

Would more money help recruitment?  Yes, but there are other ways to effectively recruit.  Would money help retention?  To an extent, but I don’t think it would make a noticeable dent in then 5-year retention rate.  Not to mention, teaching already does not provide very good career earnings numbers.  If merit pay is simply about shifting the same pool of money toward the highest-performing teachers, the result is going to be that solid teachers currently at the median will see a dramatic decrease in career earnings, and many are simply going to jump ship, rather than actually sticking around to hone their craft, trying to break into the money.

To me, point #4 is where the merit pay logic really falls through.  In a truly great school, everybody works together.  There’s not such thing as “my classroom”, there is only “our school”.  People pitch in where they’re needed.  It’s a communal atmosphere.  If you give each school a pool of money based on its performance, and distribute that money to the teachers based on their performance, I think you destroy any sense of common purpose.  You’re going to see far more cheating, fudging, and backstabbing on every level, and far less sharing and cooperation.  Suddenly, everything becomes about “what’s in it for me”, and “what’s best for the children” becomes an afterthought.  Those brilliant lesson plans you used to give to new teachers become your precious golden eggs.

Merit pay is not a bad thing per se.  Unquestionably, at the most hypothetical level, it’s more fair toward teachers, but what is our ultimate goal?  Is it fairness toward teachers or  I think there are many reasons to believe that it could actually have a detrimental effect on overall student achievement.  One thing is for certain, if implemented, it needs to be done in an extremely careful and conscientious manner.

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