Why Merit Pay Is a Merit-less Idea



merit pay




It sounds so logical: Run teaching as if a school were a business. Use merit pay to get better performance out of the nation’s teachers. Why should automatic salary increases be part of any profession?



Why not dangle a $20,000 bonus out there within a school faculty? So, the very best teacher gets the extra dough. And soon we’ll see teachers stepping up their efforts. Everyone wins. Or do they?



This issue is poorly understood by those outside our profession. So although the History Dr’s mission is not to promote policies, we teachers need to educate in this area also.



Why we teach is the fundamental question



I’m not advancing the argument made in this debate between the American Federation of Teachers president and a member of the conservative think tank that Betsy DeVos is on the board of. Accountability to taxpayers is one of many strong arguments against school privatization, but I explain the human aspect here.



The problem is, teaching is not a business and is not subject to the usual rules of profit making enterprises. I’ve seen it for decades: Businesspeople swoop into the schools to save the students from the incompetents. But they fundamentally misunderstand the mission–inspiring people and touching hearts–so they fail.



Simplistic solutions to complex problems rarely work.  Teachers who don’t care won’t start because more money is involved, and will be tempted to corrupt the process. Teachers who care will do their best anyway. I did not choose teaching for the pay. Nobody does.




The outcomes of merit pay looks like this



  • Performance bonuses will destroy cooperation.  The whole school environment will be poisoned. Teachers will hog their best projects and lessons, instead of cooperating and sharing. Suppose you teach Organic Chemistry, same as the teacher down the hall, will you share your best lessons and projects? No, you are both going for the same money. The communitarian nature of the whole enterprise will be lost when teachers begin competing. After my three decades of teaching, I state unequivocally: teachers do their best work when they work together. It must be a shared mission.


  • The whole process will become politicized. Who decides who gets the extra pay? The principal? The school board? A committee of parents? The mayor? Does not the principal have a favorite teacher or personal friends? My understanding of human nature is that no matter who wins the prize, someone else questions the integrity of the process. Relationships are undermined and turnover increases. The students ultimately suffer.


  • It is hard to define great teaching, especially between different fields. The disciplines within a curriculum vary so much that it is difficult to gauge what a successful teacher really is. I was “Teacher of the Year” in two different schools, but other teachers who were quietly effective were not often recognized. Imagine a special ed teacher with a roomful of learning disabled youngsters who need the help of a loving voice. Those youngsters won’t likely knock the SATs out of the park the way an AP class does. Who can design a matrix of “value added” that will reliably measure intrinsic things? Understand how different are the tasks of the gym teacher and the music teacher.



Teaching cannot be reliably quantified or monetized


If teachers are judged by student performance, which seems like the only way to get even close to objectivity, it will still not be a valid nor reliable measurement. Many factors influencing learning are beyond the teacher’s control. Imagine a fourth grader whose parents are divorcing. The child is seeing her family dissolve right in front of her eyes. Her learning will weaken as she deals with the personal anguish. Imagine an adolescent whose sibling died. Weeks and months of grief undermine her ability to do geometry problems.


If teachers are judged by numbers, then they should be able to select their students. A business can refuse difficult customers. So imagine teachers “drafting” their next year’s classes.


“I don’t want Billy S,” says one. “He’s lazy and he’ll lie right to your face.”


“Well, I don’t want Karen T in my Geometry class. Her brother needed constant hand holding and I need good scores on the state tests next year.”


“I’m not taking Jimmy R. You know what a pain his mom is? Constant phone calls and emails. I don’t need another helicopter mom in my life.”


The point is, teachers take everyone. Teachers are called to love everyone. And that’s why teaching will always be a humanitarian profession.



What teachers really want


The salary guide rewards experience and increased education. Students’ success is already the best reward for hard working teachers. Not that we wouldn’t like to see our profession paid better and treated with more respect! But if that was our primary goal, we’d all be leaving the profession tomorrow.


A dedicated teacher’s goal is to have his or her course becomes a rite of passage for young people in a town. Someone who teaches entire generations of students and their families. What’s better than a teacher who has had all the brothers and sisters of a large family? The real contract that I honored all my life was that a teacher gets a secure salary, retirement plan and medical insurance. And in return the teacher owes full mind and heart each day, to every student, without ever giving up.


Take care of the teachers employment-wise, and get out of their way to serve the students with full heart.


If you are or know a teacher, or are just interested in better schools,  won’t you consider sharing this post? The Educators’ Blog is devoted to the question: What constitutes excellent teaching? What constitutes excellent schools? We all have a stake.