The Ripon Forum

Volume 0, No. 0

June - July 2008

Is Merit Pay for Teachers Good? No.

By on November 24, 2015

No, it will turn educators into competitors and make them teach to the test.

by REG WEAVER

At the center of a national debate about the quality of public education is the subject of teacher compensation. The issue among many is not whether to increase teacher salaries, but rather who among teachers should receive an increase and how they should earn it.

Merit pay is presented as a daring attempt to infuse public schools with the best practices from business and industry. Yet enthusiasm with the concept far outpaces the data supporting its effectiveness.

A 1998 Harvard Business Review article substantiates this fact. After surveying companies that experimented with merit pay, consulting firm William M. Mercer concluded that most individual merit-based pay plans share two attributes: they absorb vast amounts of time and resources, and they make everybody unhappy. W. Edwards Deming and management experts have argued strongly against using such schemes. Practical experience from the private sector, however, has done little to stem the growing fascination with offering merit pay to school employees.

In fact, merit pay has been touted as a panacea for what ails public schools for several generations. The reason it isn’t already in place all across the country is that it doesn’t work. It does nothing to improve teaching and learning, it makes teachers competitors rather than collaborators, and it takes the focus away from doing what we know does work — paying every teacher a living wage commensurate with their training and experience.

The question isn’t how to differentiate pay between teachers. The question is hot to pay teachers a salary that encourages the creation of great public schools for every child.

For the National Education Association, the questions about any merit pay plan remain the same today as they were decades ago. Who determines merit: Is it the superintendent or school board? Or is merit based on the results of a one-size-fits-all standardized test? Similarly, what gets tested: physical education and music? Or only “core curriculum” subjects?

When it comes to merit pay, it is clear that folks have decided on a solution before they have defined the problem. The result is misguided policies that divert attention from addressing the root causes of teacher turnover and stagnant student achievement.

The question isn’t how to differentiate pay between teachers. The question is how to pay teachers a salary that encourages the creation of great public schools for every child.

That means paying every teacher for more training and experience. It means paying a salary that is competitive enough to keep teachers from being tempted to leave the classroom for other jobs. And it means paying an entry level salary that encourages people to enter the teaching profession. That’s why NEA has called for a national beginning salary of $40,000 for every public school educator.

… merit pay can’t replace a perverse pay scale where the average earnings of workers with at least four years of college are now more than 50 percent higher than the average teacher’s wages.

In a 2006 MetLife survey, one in four teachers cited low salaries and a lack of control over their own work as the primary reasons they will likely leave their jobs within the next five years. These teachers reported frustration and dissatisfaction with principals who did not ask for their suggestions, did not show appreciation for their work, and did not treat them with respect.

Merit pay can’t substitute for a working environment that places a high value on trust and teamwork. And merit pay can’t replace a perverse pay scale where the average earnings of workers with at least four years of college are now more than 50 percent higher than the average teacher’s wages.

At schools that are struggling and failing to make adequate yearly progress, educators are crying out for smaller class sizes, better professional development, more parental involvement, and updated textbooks and technology. In this environment, merit pay is just an over-simplified approach masquerading as school improvement.

After 150 years of working to improve the pay for America’s school employees, NEA knows there is a better model for attracting and retaining qualified teachers and improving student learning.

Pay teachers for the knowledge and skills they gain. Compensate teachers for mentoring newer colleagues. Reward teachers who stay in hard-to-staff schools and accept extra assignments. Provide group incentives that give teachers the opportunity to obtain greater autonomy and discretion in all school matters.

Sadly, it is often simpler to tinker with merit pay than to exercise the judgment and courage necessary to reform teacher quality at its core. Does an ill-advised strategy of pushing merit pay best serve the children of America? Absolutely not.

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Reg Weaver is president of the National Education Association, which represents 3.2 million teachers and other public school educators.

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