Published Online: January 15, 1997

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Merit Pay Won't Work in Schools

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In a school district where the majority of students live below poverty and teachers are crying out for lower class size, higher standards of conduct, greater academic rigor, an end to social promotions, and relief from a blizzard of unnecessary paperwork, Rochester, N.Y., Superintendent Clifford B. Janey offers merit pay as the answer to our problems. ("Incentive Pay," Nov. 6, 1996.) How sad--especially for our students.

There are lots of ways to improve education, but merit pay is not one of them.

Merit pay won't make our classrooms less crowded; won't make schools safer; won't get parents more involved in their children's schoolwork; won't end social promotions; won't lead to higher behavioral and academic standards; and it certainly won't improve teaching or pupil learning.

Anyone who promotes merit pay must believe that teachers are best motivated by financial incentives. They assume that teachers could do a better job, but they are holding back because there's not enough in it for them. Wrong.

But the worst thing about tying pay to performance in education is that it leads to harmful practice for the very students that it purports to help. Children's learning suffers when teachers are forced to worry more about test scores than about real learning.

And there are other good reasons for opposing this idea: Merit pay makes no more sense in education than it would in any other human service profession. Can you imagine physicians' pay tied to the patients' rate of recovery? There is no convincing evidence that merit pay has resulted in improved student learning in any school or school district. The effects of teachers' work cannot be fully measured at the end of one year. Trying to do so ignores the real impact that might not be evidenced until much later.

Merit pay would encourage divisive competition in a profession that requires cooperation and teamwork. Students learn best when teachers collaborate--not when teachers are forced to compete for money. Test scores are important information and must not be ignored, but they should not be triggers determining teachers' pay. Children's learning is also affected by circumstances related to their home environment, health care, nutrition, and other factors.

In Rochester, we already have a procedure for withholding negotiated salary increases from those who are proven undeserving. We also have a way for rewarding teachers who have higher credentials, work a longer school day and year, and assume additional responsibilities (called lead teachers). And we have collaboratively developed a new and diversified evaluation for teachers that includes information about--and examples of--student work, as well as input from parents, administrators, and other teachers.

Perhaps a way to build on this good foundation is to promote group incentives that would not only offer financial rewards but also opportunities to gain greater autonomy, support, and discretion in all school matters.

Building trust, collaboration, and shared accountability will get us farther than merit-pay schemes.


Adam Urbanski is the president of the Rochester Teachers Association in Rochester, N.Y., and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.

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