In the business world, the best workers typically get the best pay in the office. A good manager is aware of the kinds of successes and challenges employees face, and pay raises and bonuses are doled out based upon the amount of work put in, the amount of success the employee has, and the kind of talent the worker displays.
In the 1990s, a movement sprang up to create such a pay system for teachers. Since so many students are seemingly failing to learn and the U.S. is falling behind other countries in terms of educational standards, we must fix the system by rewarding good teachers with extra pay. That will in turn draw better teachers to the profession, and the poor teachers will head to other professions.
It sounds like a win-win for everybody. The problem is that it doesn’t work.
Most merit pay systems for teachers are based on a number of factors. They typically include points from a portfolio that records activities like committee work, further education and community activities; results of student evaluations; and scores from supervisor assessments. Many of these are important aspects of a teacher’s job, but their efficacy for determining one’s worth in a classroom might be suspect.
One such example is the portfolio. Few teachers enjoy sitting on committees, so giving points for such work seems like a good way to get more motivation. Continuing education is always a good idea, and teachers can learn much from coursework or simply networking in teacher development classes or conferences. But most teachers are required to complete a certain number of hours of such work in order to keep their certification or licensing, so bonuses based on such experiences are superfluous. On the other hand, many portfolios include points for community activities like coaching little league or sitting on a church committee. How does this make one a better teacher? A salesperson, a PR expert, a business owner-those types of jobs certainly can benefit from becoming more well-known in the community. But a teacher?
Then there are student evaluations, an important part of any program. These are typically given in college courses rather than K-12, but some schools are leaning more toward using such evaluations in merit pay systems. Evaluations can give instructors a better handle on what elements of the class students liked or didn’t, what aspects of the course the teacher might want to change before the class is offered again. The problem within the merit pay system occurs when purely numbers-based student evaluations are included. The college instructor who teaches upper-level courses that only majors would take will undoubtedly score higher than the one who has to teach freshman composition. The students in the upper-level courses typically want to be there and enjoy the material, while nobody likes freshman composition. The same sort of ideas follow to K-12, also. A math teacher is unlikely to receive the same level of scores as the one who teaches shop or physical education. This merit pay concept also lends itself to abuse. Teachers may reduce expectations, inflate grades, or otherwise bribe students in order to receive higher scores. (This writer has seen several teachers bring cookies to class the week of evaluations.)
That leaves us with supervisor evaluations as part of merit pay. Supervisor assessments can be the most valuable part of a merit pay system. However, to get an accurate picture of a teacher’s classroom ability, the supervisor must do more than simply appear in the classroom for an hour once a semester. A conversation between the teacher and supervisor about classroom goals, lesson plans, previous and expected activities must take place so the supervisor has context. The supervisor should also spend some time in the hallways listening to what goes on in classrooms when no supervisor is in the room as well as listening to what students are saying to each other. Otherwise, evaluations are taking place in a vacuum. Again, teachers may adjust their schedules to create what they consider a lesson that will get them a higher score on the day the evaluator is expected. If that means a more effective lesson, that’s fine, but that’s not always the case.
Some people say that teachers should be professional enough to make changes that help improve teaching and learning rather than changes that simply get them more pay. It is true that the majority of teachers do care about student learning and would love to find such methods, but especially with the emphasis many merit pay systems put on student evaluations, some teachers feel they have little choice but to try to manipulate this point. These raises are not bonuses but are meant to be for base pay raises. Over the course of a career, a few points on student evaluations forms can add up to tens of thousands of dollars.
So what is the answer to merit pay? The answer is to have administrators do their jobs. They should have enough background in education to recognize the successes and challenges teachers face. Pay raises should be decided by administrators who recognize the amount of work put in, the amount of success the teacher has, and the kind of talent the teacher displays. Merit pay in education creates a hostile environment among colleagues and actually encourages poor teaching. If administrators need fewer responsibilities in order to allow them to properly supervise teachers, let extra money be spent there. Only without a merit pay system will teachers actually be paid based upon merit.