Education Opinion

Pay Me For My Merit

By Nancy Flanagan — July 13, 2010 3 min read
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OK, I’m just going to say this out loud: I believe in merit pay.

Probably not the way most people envision merit pay--certainly not the way Jeb Bush construes merit pay--but I’m wide open to the idea that teacher compensation ought to be differentiated and tied to performance.

And I can tell you the exact moment when I had a change of heart about the negotiated single-salary schedule. The local newspaper ran an annual evaluation of the salaries of employees on the public payroll: What did we pay township clerks, postmasters and police? Who was the highest paid school superintendent--and what did their benefit plans include? (Side note: those who get exercised about teachers’ “Cadillac” health care ought to take a closer look at what school administrators build into their benefit packages.)

The salaries of the top ten highest-paid teachers in the county were listed. I knew some of them personally--and taught across the hall from one of them. The salary figure was mind-boggling, nearly twice what I was making, as a 25-year veteran with a masters degree.

Teachers are socialized not to air dirty school laundry, but let me say that I had up-close, observed information about this teacher’s daily work habits, in terms of preparation, dedication and innovation. I knew when the teacher came in, left the building, took sick leave and for what reasons. I knew exactly what passed for instruction in the classroom across the hall. I knew where that teacher had accrued a mountain of useless graduate hours--and I saw that teacher do the grinning bobble-head thing whenever the principal had a new idea.

It struck me that perhaps the district was not using its scarce resources in the best possible way, that the single-salary schedule was incenting the wrong behaviors: hanging around the district forever, meaningless course-taking and constructing a truly professional salary through side jobs (coaching sports, committees, department chairmanships) paid by the auxiliary schedule. When my buddy across the hall was taking easy on-line courses toward a specialist degree in the summer, I was doing unpaid instrument repair and fund-raising for the band trip. I was a chump.

It would be easy to misconstrue my point here, so let me be clear. This is not a story about lazy, glad-handing veteran teachers. It’s one of a million stories about how the single-salary schedule--created to build gender equity, reduce capriciousness and encourage advanced education-- isn’t working any more. The teacher across the hall may have made better professional choices, if we were paying for the right things.

What are those right things? Denver’s ProComp plan is the iconic model--but every bargaining agency (as well as systems in right-to-work states) ought to be developing their own unique performance-pay plan, because schools have different needs. Should hard-to-staff schools reward teachers with experience and success in reaching students living in poverty? Yes. Should schools offer higher salaries for positions that are chronically hard to fill with a qualified person? Sure.

And here’s the biggie: should schools reward teachers for increases in student learning? Absolutely. What would happen if every teacher had to present a portfolio of evidence-based student learning annually? That portfolio might include videotaped lessons, student work over time, external observations, evaluations and awards--and, where appropriate, standardized test data. Such an annual review would force teachers to collect evidence of their own effectiveness continuously, and build awareness of how good assessment can drive instruction.

One of the most commonly heard objections to performance pay is that it will divide teachers and reduce collaboration. Teachers are already divided by the single-salary schedule, into well-paid veterans and impoverished newbies. And some veterans are better paid than others, because they’ve figured out how to use the system.

The system is broken. Let’s fix it.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.