Merit Pay: The Issues People Ignore

I wanted to share my response to journalist Nicholas Kristof in his The New York Times article, Paying Teachers More, which also advocated tying teacher salaries to student performance (i.e., merit pay). Minor adjustments were made below from my original submitted comment:

Your views tends to be typical of those that do not appear to have teaching experience. Though your heart is in the right place, you have misconceptions about merit pay. You believe that it makes sense that increased pay should be tied to performance – this will not generally work because of the following reasons:

1) Merit pay assumes that teachers bear the sole responsibility for children’s learning – with parents having none. Whether children come in school-ready or not depends in large part to parents (and community). Studies like Hart & Risley in the early 1990s determined that poor kids were exposed to substantially less language at home than professional families – a difference of 300 words per hour, which extrapolated to an 8 million word gap over a year. This linked to large differences in child outcome, and teachers are supposed to make up this difference in a class of 30 diverse learners?

2) Unlike the medical and legal profession, teaching has been de-professionalized. This means that teachers are given no authority to utilize their expertise to help the child as needed; they are restricted to the narrow curriculum from NCLB ( i.e., test-preparation), which undermines their expertise and further exacerbates children’s problems. If you condemn the teaching in public education, start with the profession, not the teacher.

3) Merit pay will only hurt learners, because it warps the system. The smart teachers will game the system – many will flee the poor districts (because it will be harder to improve those students’ achievement), go to better districts and stay there. Poor districts will get worse. The net effect? Good schools get better, and the ones who need the most help invariably get worse — the exact opposite effect of what merit pay intended to address. In the process, children get trampled.

4) In most cases, merit pay does not motivate teachers to work any harder than they already have. I’m sure in your experience, you’ve seen teachers sacrifice their time and energy outside of school to help the neediest students. I put in 100% everyday, and money will not make me work 10% harder — the law of diminishing returns. The ineffective and unmotivated teachers need to be screened out better, but that is an administrative and union issue. Higher pay may be used to initially attract and lend prestige, but the carrot cannot be used after the bait’s been taken.

5) How do you decide who gets it? The structure of merit pay is ambiguous, especially for teachers who share students. How do you know a topic taught by one reading teacher is not reinforced by another in social studies? It gets messy, as you can imagine.

6) Tying pay to performance may succeed in business but not schools – schools have the responsibility to educate ALL children while businesses have the luxury to drop “failing” products. Don’t treat kids like standardized products. Teacher’s rule: Be wary of importing business models to education – they are not isomorphic. Read Raymond Callahan’s Education and the Cult of Efficiency on how business procedures have historically trumped educational goals.

My point is that those who do not teach simply don’t know what is involved. They make reasonable arguments (“tie pay with performance to keep the best!”) but fail to realize how complex it is. This is why teachers were outraged over Cathy Black’s selection for NYC Schools Chancellor – she will make sweeping management decisions that will affect every teacher without understanding the educational consequences all in the name of efficiency; it is not just a management issue. If you want effective reform, streamline the unions (cut the bloat), empower the teaching profession through rigorous training, selection, and support, motivate teachers using progressive master teaching levels (as they do in those top countries), and find comprehensive methods to tackle poverty. The public should also realize that we must build an overall culture of education that involves NOT just schools – but parents, government, and community – without them, you will not maximize success. Our popular culture has much to do with our collective failures. These non-school variables are what’s missing from the public discussion.

Update: One other downside of merit pay systems, courtesy of the National Education Association (NEA)Merit pay systems force teachers to compete, rather than cooperate. They create a disincentive for teachers to share information and teaching techniques. This is especially true because there is always a limited pool of money for merit pay. Thus, the number-one way teachers learn their craft –learning from their colleagues — is effectively shut down. If you think we have turnover problems in teaching now, wait until new teachers have no one to turn to.

Addendum: For those who still insist merit pay will work (and that it just needs to be implemented in the right way), read about some new studies that suggest the benefits of group incentive pay over individual incentive pay. The idea is that one’s performance is magnified in a collaborative setting (i.e., there is more at stake and thus motivates them more). What do you think?

4 thoughts on “Merit Pay: The Issues People Ignore

  1. I teach high school. Here’s another ignored issue. I have no control over the amount of time a student is under my purview for instruction. Administration can and will call students out of class at any time. There is an attendance policy but admins do not enforce it. Mandatory assemblies occur frequently in my school, causing an entire class of students to have less instruction. We are on a block schedule, meeting every other day, so if an assembly is called there will be at least a 3 day interruption of learning.

    If I am to be held accountable for a student’s performance then I should be able to say no when the secretary announces over the P.A. that Johnny must come to the office. I should be able to say no to any assembly that I deem unnecessary to the curriculum I am supposed to cover. The performance of students with excessive absences should not count in my review.

    1. Dedicated instruction time is definitely an issue with schools – and you’re right that there are too many disruptions. This is part of the de-professionalization of teaching. Teachers’ expertise and authority are consistently undermined, yet they are expected to meet targets that are set beyond their control. Thanks for your valuable input.

  2. These comments reminded me of an experience I had teaching English in a private school (before becoming an attorney). Many students in my 7th period class were also enrolled in an after-school cooking club at the school. However, some recipes took more than 45 or an hour (the length of the club time). Therefore, MANY times my 7th period English students would come to class with a note from the cooking club teacher asking them to be excused 15 or 30 minutes early to cook.

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