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Better Ways Than Money to Reward Merit in Teaching

By Kent P. Hickey — April 15, 2010 5 min read

Battle lines are being drawn in the debate over merit pay in our schools. Under the schools-as-businesses banner we have the credo: “You do better and we’ll pay you more.” Those wearing union colors counter, “Pay us more and then we’ll do better.” Both positions carry the benefit of simplicity, but both also suffer from a significant downside: They don’t work.

Viewed primarily as a good-business practice, merit pay—tying teacher salaries to specific goals such as higher standardized-test scores—sounds like a great way to improve teacher performance. The problem is that it ignores why good teachers teach and what makes successful schools successful. And, on the opposite side, just throwing money at teachers has never been effective. If we really want to improve how we teach our kids we should focus instead on common-sense principles grounded more in reality than ideology or posturing. We should start with these:

Teaching involves perfecting one’s art, not meeting sales quotas.
Years ago, I performed piecework at a shopping-cart-wheel factory. I quickly realized that my pay was only going to improve if I moved from totally inept to minimally effective. Merit pay worked for me because, while I certainly appreciated the value of shopping-cart wheels, money was my primary motivation. The system also worked because the checklist for pay was clear and objective: Good wheel equals pay. Bad wheel equals no pay.

But that doesn’t mean that what works well on the assembly line is equally effective for those who work with our children’s minds. Merit pay assumes that teachers are motivated to achieve excellence by being paid for each completed item on a checklist. That’s a deeply flawed assumption. For one, money is not the primary motivation for teachers. (Otherwise, they wouldn’t be teachers.) Second, that checklist doesn’t exist, because great teaching isn’t the stuff of checklists.

Producing great teaching is the primary motivation for great teachers. So, create environments that make successful teaching likely, not just possible, and begin by assisting our least experienced instructors. Young teachers often leave the profession because they lack support and feel overwhelmed. Apprentice these new teachers to wise mentors, those who have achieved mastery of their craft. End the widespread practice of saddling novices with the most difficult classroom assignments. We don’t require recent medical school graduates to perform open heart surgery on their first patients. Why, then, do we continue to prop up seniority-based classroom scheduling, a system that robs young teachers of the opportunity to achieve excellence in manageable steps?

Ineffective teachers should be fired.
Some people, despite significant support, simply do not possess the skills, temperament, or work ethic to successfully practice the art of teaching. Those failings do not make them bad people, but they do make them bad teachers. And, just as the general teaching population is not motivated to achieve excellence through merit pay, financial incentives via checklist completion will not transform truly inept teachers into good ones. They need to go, lest their poor performance become the measuring stick for the school as a whole and they crush the spirits of their colleagues who earnestly seek excellence.

Collective bargaining agreements do not recognize this truth. That is why, for example, some districts pay ineffective teachers to spend their days in holding pens instead of classrooms, or shuffle them from school to school. A district’s unwillingness not to renew the contracts of bad teachers (either because of insufficient strength in the bargaining agreement or the will of administrators) creates “Dunder Mifflin schools” (named for the fictional company in television’s “The Office”). Such schools reflect the management philosophy of Steve Carell’s “Office” character, boss Michael Scott: “I just don’t want my employees thinking that their jobs depend on performance.” And it shows.

A teacher’s life requires sacrifices, not a sacrificed life.
Teachers deserve a compensation package that allows them to stay in teaching without significant hardship. We should, for example, formulate salary scales based on local cost of living, not state or national data.

Make the temporary tax credit for new home buyers a negotiated contract benefit to help teachers obtain affordable housing. Generously match teacher contributions to retirement accounts, and pass legislation that would allow teachers to make tax-deferred contributions to their children’s college funds.

Teachers know that they won’t get rich teaching. We could at least remove the financial disincentives that compel them to leave the work they love.

“We do the most important work in the world.”
Display those words in faculty rooms throughout the country, and treat our best teachers accordingly. Stimulate the intellect of teachers through meaningful professional development, instead of reducing their lives to quiet desperation through endless meetings. Stop requiring that they teach to standardized tests as a poor substitute for real learning. Fairly compensate (through release time and stipends) those master teachers whose wisdom and example inspire our next generation of teachers to achieve excellence. Recognize that poor-performing schools are never going to get better unless the best teachers teach in them; elevate assignments in those schools to symbols of the highest professional achievement.

Most importantly, treat teachers with dignity. When a school has questions about improving student learning, start by asking the teachers in that building what they think. Our best teachers have always had the best answers.

In sum, merit pay is gimmickry that just doesn’t work. And the self-serving position of some teachers’ unions—just show us the money—bears equally bad fruit. There is no one solution, a magic potion, that cures all. But we could teach our kids better, one school at a time, by adopting straightforward measures that strengthen and reward all teachers. But this will only happen if we are willing to abandon deeply entrenched battle lines and meet on common ground.

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2010 edition of Education Week as Better Ways Than Money to Reward Merit in Teaching

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