Merit Pay for Teachers Gains Ground

merit pay.gif As an inner-city, high school English teacher in San Antonio, Texas, I worked with many (I'll be kind) very tired teachers. It didn't take me long to learn why -- the work was brutal and the rewards were few and far between.

It was Texas in the early 80's and like most places in the country, I learned to keep my mouth (mostly) shut about radical notions like the idea that we might all be energized by consistent opportunities to increase our pay by acheiving Herculean tasks in the schoolroom. While not for everyone, I didn't then and don't now, see what it would hurt. It was a topic deemed unworthy of discussion and, besides, we were all busy arguing about Ross Perot's radical (and eventually successful) "No Pass, No Play" rule which stipulated that if kids weren't passing their classes, they wouldn't be allowed to pass a football. (Woe to the teachers that stuck to their guns with Homerun Javier.)

So I was particularly thrilled by this week's New York Times article, "Long Reviled, Merit Pay Gains Among Teachers" which suggests that the times are changin'. According to the article, the two major unions hold different opinions on the topic of merit pay for teachers. The National Association of Education, "...labels merit pay, or any other pay system based on an evaluation of teachers' performance, as 'inappropriate.' " (Gotta keep breathing.) The American Federation of Teachers has concerns (which I agree are reasonable) about awards being determined strictly by administrators (promoting cronyism) or solely based upon how students perform on tests, but "...has endorsed arrangements that reward teams of teachers whose students show outstanding achievement growth."

Here's what a quick Google search picked up in opposition to the idea from the Wisconsin Educators Associated, whose newsletter leads with the headline: IS PERFORMANCE BASED PAY IN OUR FUTURE? LET'S HOPE NOT!

Those in government who would like to bring about the demise of public education in the interest of privatization have a multi-faceted approach. Among them is paying teachers based on the test scores of children. Plain and simple this is an attack on public education and those who teach in the public schools. "Merit pay won't make our classrooms less crowded, won't make our schools safer, won't get parents more involved in their children's schoolwork... won't improve teaching or pupil learning...(it) would encourage divisive competition in a profession that requires cooperation and teamwork... (and it would be unfair given the uncontrollable factors) that children's learning is also affected by circumstances related to their home environment, health care, nutrition, and other factors", so says Adam Urbanski, in MERIT PAY WON'T WORK IN SCHOOLS.

I've no doubt that it is tricky to design reward systems that can be broadly and effectively implemented (physics and algebra weren't too easy for some of us either), but it can and must be done. I'm not suggesting that merit pay will solve all problems faced by schools. I don't believe it should be used as an excuse to punish teachers whose students do not meet standardized requirements because of a whole host of factors over which the teacher has no control. But I do think it is possible to determine if kids are making progress over a year's time, sitting in front of a specific teacher.

Maybe I'm warped because my daddy was a car salesman, and if he didn't sell we didn't eat. Maybe I'm warped from running nonprofits for which, if I didn't raise money, we didn't make payroll. But how can you argue with the fundamental premise that teachers should be rewarded based on how well they enable their charges to learn?

Susan Herr

Posted at 7:14 AM, Jun 22, 2007 in Education | Permalink | Comments (1)


Let's see if I get this right: some people have a problem with rewarding people for doing better than expected? For helping kids succeed more than other teachers in the same school? For showing commitment above and beyond and producing measurable results? Explain to me the problem here!

It reminds me of another interesting post and exchange I read on White Courtesy Telephone this week. Albert Ruesga interviewed Stuart Loving, who is on a hunger strike to protest the Darfur genocide. As a sidebar, Albert raised another issue that came out of his conversation with Loving. Apparently some donors believe people who work for nonprofits should not be paid. He writes: "There are some donors who believe charitable work should be done 'for free.' Because they're not willing to do the work themselves, they commission it, saying to the nonprofit staffer, 'Here, go make my vision a reality, and give me ample credit for it, but don't take any money for yourself.'"

Try to sell those enlightened folks on merit pay.

Posted by: Bruce Trachtenberg