Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Pros and Cons of Merit Pay for Teachers

Another interesting education issue of our times is the argument over whether to change the pay of teachers in America's public schools. Our current system is one that gives teachers a steady increase of pay as they work longer. Essentially, this means that pay is based on seniority, where the teachers being paid the most are the ones who have worked as a teacher the longest.

The issue before us is whether to switch to a method of pay by merit. This would mean that, instead of receiving a flat pay rate no matter how hard you work, teachers would be paid based on their achievements in the classroom; extra pay would be allotted for raising a class's test scores, achieving impeccable attendance records, or working above and beyond the call of duty in staying after school to help children with tutorials or clubs.

The Argument for Merit Pay

The rationale behind the change is that paying teachers what they have earned through hard work pushes teachers in two beneficial directions. It encourages teachers to work beyond the mininum in an effort to improve the learning of the students and it would help make the job more professional. In most lines of work, increased pay is given to those who put in exemplary work; this can be seen through bonuses and salary increases. But, with teachers, pulling 60+ hour weeks earns one nothing beyond the norm. This is not to say that money is required to motivate teachers to work hard, but it certainly helps to contribute to a better work ethic. With teacher pay as it is currently, teachers often have problems making ends meet; they often have to help pay for school supplies for their students out of their own pockets and their limited pay can create stress that can manifest itself in front of students. This results in many skilled teachers leaving the profession in search of less hassle and more monetary potential. Merit pay would help alleviate these problems.

Merit pay also serves to target one particular problem within the current system; the problem of the indifferent, sloppy, or uncaring teachers. With our system of seniority pay, terrible teachers are not financially affected by giving the bare mininum. An old teacher who has given up on trying gets paid more than a younger teacher who works their butt off and creates the best grades in the school. Similarly, with two teachers of equal pay, one can skate by with doing nothing beyond what is expected of them and still gets paid as much as the caring, positive teacher working twice as hard. Merit pay would turn this problem on its head as more attention would be paid to a class's grades, a teacher's work time, and the instructor's achievements. This would call attention to those who choose not to work that hard and they would, as a result, have to actually step up and do their jobs. Or endure low pay and the risk of termination.

The Argument against Merit Pay

The main problem with merit pay is the question of how does one measure merit? What may be above average scores for one school may be mediocre scores for another. How does one make a universal merit pay system that can compensate for the social and economic differences between schools? If a merit pay system based on test scores were based on attaining higher or lower scores than the national average, then it creates a system where teachers who work at highly successful schools make bank and teachers who work with struggling schools get shafted. In both of those scenarios, what affects the scores are geographical, societal, and economic issues beyond a teacher's control.

This brings up another problem with merit pay. Basing it on test scores and grades alone ignores a host of factors that are out of the teacher's hands. If Calvin had a sleepless night because of loud neighbors or fighting parents, this will negatively affect his test score in a way that can't be affected by teacher effort. If Susie has a habit of acing worksheets and discussions but freezing up with the taking of tests, this would affect the teacher's merit pay even though Susie excels at everything else. If Hobbes skips class as a result of a horrible family life that has failed to engender an appreciation of schooling, would his absence be regarded as the teacher's failing? The sheer number of factors that can affect a student's attendance, grades, or test scores are mind boggling. And, somehow, merit pay would need to compensate for all of these factors to establish a system that does not punish or fail to reward teachers who are affected by concerns that they have no influence over.

Lastly, paying teachers based on merit would create an atmosphere of competition that would likely inhibit teamwork and cooperative solutions. Given that merit pay would naturally have limits that would give each school a contained pool of money to assign to teacher salaries, helping the new teacher next door with setting up the classroom merely speeds the process within which s/he would be affecting the money you get from your own work. Assisting a teacher with an after-school event of her making would arguably call attention to her success (and merit), which would raise her salary in a way likely to take away from your own. Basically, teachers would be finanically rewarded for undermining their colleagues, making themselves look brilliant, and making absurdly easy tests if they can get away with it.


After this appraisal, it seems evident to me that merit pay for teachers is something that is theoretically excellent but practically impossible. But there is no question that the pay system needs some sort of change. Teacher's pay is minimal compared to other professions, the system has no protection against those who refuse to try, and gives no encouragement or recognition to those who work hard at education our next generation of workers.

While I am no expert, it seems that a rational way to address the problem would be to do three things. Give all teachers a blanket raise on the current seniority system so that the difficult work of being a teacher is recognized (and is more on the pay level of other professions). Allot a pool of money for bonuses that can be given to those who go above and beyond the call of duty. Create a group of administrators in each school whose job it is to look into each of the teachers on a monthly or semester basis so as to provide transparency, recognize excellence, monitor growth, and warn those who fail to make effort.

With this hypothetical system, the pay level of teachers would match those of other professions, reducing the brain drain where talented teachers move on to other jobs as they feel like their effort is not appreciated and does not match their pay. Bonuses would be given to those who work hard for the money, calling attention to those who need improvement. And the group of administrators would draw up a scoring system for each individual school that would affect the pay for the teachers in that particular school, avoiding the problem of a universal merit pay system. They would also put extra scrutiny upon teachers, making it so they have to earn this pay increase that they would be getting. And cooperation among teachers would continue unaffected, as these administrators would be in place to stop abuse of the system and greater pay would still be given to those who have worked the longest; a system that would be much fairer given the greater transparency.


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