Education Letter to the Editor

How About Merit Pay for Parents and Students?

February 23, 2005 2 min read

To the Editor:

In “Governors Seek New Teacher-Pay Methods” (Feb. 2, 2005), you report that alternative methods of paying teachers are popping up from coast to coast. A Google search verifies your reporting, with California being the epicenter of this movement.

As a teacher, I feel it is my duty to point out the flaws of merit pay. Since the 1966 report by James S. Coleman, we have known that the home environment is one of the most important predictors of academic achievement. So merit pay would seem to be an attempt to pay teachers for outcomes that are to a large degree beyond their control.

Can anyone imagine paying oncologists or cardiologists based on their patients’ outcomes? No doctor would take the most difficult patients—those who need help the most, but are least likely to show progress—under such a scheme. Educators are no different.

Why do politicians continue to push a worthless idea designed to promote competition among teachers when research repeatedly demonstrates that students do best when teachers work collaboratively?

Politicians are frustrated. They are elected to do something, and merit pay, while not the right something, is nonetheless something.

The Statistical Abstract of the United States verifies that we earn what we learn. Those with higher education earn more money than those without the credential after their name. So what do we do to reach into households and create an environment conducive to academic success? How about merit pay for parents and students?

I propose the Individual College Account, or ICA, plan. It works like this: When the child is born, $2,500 is placed into his or her ICA, which works like a 401K or 403B. Five years later, when the child enters kindergarten, the parents receive $1,000 if the child is on reading level at that time. This gives parents the incentive to create a reading environment in their home for their child. The rest of the money continues to mature.

At high school graduation time, the college or trade school of the child’s choice receives a percentage of the ICA in the student’s name, based on the following criteria: percentage of on-time attendance; grades; behavior; parental involvement.

Surely holding parents accountable makes at least as much sense as holding teachers accountable. Parents will be more likely to seek help at an earlier stage in the child’s development, and to be advocates for the child’s academic success.

Individual college accounts could create multiple paybacks for society, and in the long run might actually lower the cost of education on a per-student basis by eliminating remedial work and reducing special services.

Keith Newman

Philadelphia, Pa.

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2005 edition of Education Week as How About Merit Pay for Parents and Students?