Opinion
Recruitment & Retention Opinion

Merit Pay: An Agreeable Fantasy

By Wayne Gersen — March 01, 2010 4 min read

Adlai Stevenson, the two-time unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president, is said to have once quipped: “Americans are suckers for good news. Given a choice between disagreeable fact and agreeable fantasy, they will choose the fantasy every time.”

For decades, the American public has chosen to believe in an agreeable educational fantasy: that merit pay for teachers will cure the ills of our “failing public schools,” particularly those in urban and high-poverty neighborhoods. This agreeable fantasy ignores three disagreeable facts:

1. We already have merit pay.

Our current method of school funding, which is based primarily on state and local taxes, creates a de facto merit-pay system, one that works against the urgent goal of providing quality instruction in districts with the highest poverty levels. Teachers working in districts with high property-tax revenues earn significantly more than their counterparts elsewhere, and they have far superior working conditions. As a result, those wealthy districts attract and retain the best teachers, while less-affluent districts struggle to fill positions, and often lose their most promising teachers to wealthier districts within commuting range.

Serving as a public school superintendent for more than 25 years, I have experienced this de facto system of merit pay from both sides of the barrel. In the affluent college community in New Hampshire where I now work, our applicant pool includes not only a large number of recent college graduates with exceptional transcripts, but also many veteran teachers from neighboring districts with solid experience and stellar references. These applicants are seeking jobs in our district in part because we pay very well compared with other districts in northern New England.

Given the choice, teachers will accept decent pay and good working conditions over extraordinary pay and a stressful workplace."

Often, our applicants may indicate other reasons for applying: superior professional-growth opportunities, fully staffed and equipped media centers, a wide range of student services, the availability of technology, or manageable class sizes and course loads. But more importantly, they want to work in the district because they know that our students want to succeed in school, our parents understand and appreciate the value of education, and our community supports the schools by consistently passing budgets.

A decade ago, working in the Hudson Valley in New York state, I had the opposite experience. Each spring, some of the best and brightest teachers regretfully submitted their resignations. They did so because they had landed jobs in more-affluent districts to the south, where salaries, benefits, and working conditions were markedly better, and the communities more supportive. Our district paid relatively well for the region, but better opportunities existed within commuting distance, and many of our exceptional veteran and promising newer teachers left for those jobs.

2. Performance is not linked to revenue in public education.

Because public schools rely on state and local taxes, there is no connection between performance and funding. In the private sector, if a company’s profits increase, management can use those additional funds to reward employees whose performance caused the bottom line to grow. In school districts, pay increases depend on tax revenues, which fluctuate because of variables beyond the districts’ control.

When a school system’s test scores soar during a year when the tax base declines—because of erosion in local property taxes, a reduction in state aid, or the downshifting of state- or federal-government costs to the local level—it is impossible to reward the improved performance. In times of economic stress, the pool of funds reserved to reward a district’s best teachers would be pitted against increased class sizes, the elimination of “nonessential” programs, maintenance projects, or compensation for other employees. Given these distasteful choices, districts inevitably choose to abandon merit pay.

3. Teachers do not want merit pay.

The most insurmountable disagreeable truth about merit pay is that teachers don’t want it. Given the choice, teachers will accept decent pay and good working conditions over extraordinary pay and a stressful workplace. They want to work where they have a sense that they are making a difference in students’ lives, where they are respected and valued in the community, and where they can earn enough to live comfortably in the community where they work.

The most disagreeable truth about our current funding for public education is this: Only a sizable and sustained infusion of money can offset the existing pay and workplace disparities that make a mockery of the ideal of equal opportunity in public schools. The hard-working teachers in low-paying districts need decent wages; the forlorn schools in those districts need to be upgraded; and students in all schools should experience an education with the small class sizes and rich curriculum offerings that are givens in affluent districts.

Calls for merit pay deflect the spotlight from the existing disparities in public education, overlook the disconnect between revenues and performance that exists in the public sector, and downplay the need for communities to provide moral as well as fiscal support to teachers.

Merit pay will not alter the disparities in student performance. Those disparities will disappear only when the disparities in wages and working conditions disappear.

A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as Merit Pay: An Agreeable Fantasy

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Recruitment & Retention Schools Pay a High Price for Low Teacher Salaries
Teacher turnover rates are rising and more than half of teachers said a salary hike could persuade them to stay in the classroom longer.
4 min read
Conceptual image of salary.
Collage by Laura Baker/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty)
Recruitment & Retention How 'Grow-Your-Own' Programs Are Helping Recruit Teachers of Color
Learn which strategies are working to recruit and support future teachers of color.
6 min read
Diverse team builds a geometric shapes structure together
Rudzhan Nagiev/iStock /Getty Images Plus
Recruitment & Retention Understaffed School District IT Departments Are a Big Problem. Here's One Way to Solve It
An Oregon district needed bilingual support staff to help Spanish-speaking families manage virtual learning. It didn't need to look far.
4 min read
A worker passes public school buses parked at a depot in Manchester, N.H., Monday, April 27, 2020. New Hampshire public school children continue to be taught with remote learning, while buildings are closed to students through the end of the academic year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
In school districts across the country, buses sat idle through much of the past year. Some districts turned to bus drivers or other support staff to fill IT jobs.
Charles Krupa/AP
Recruitment & Retention Pay Raises and Pandemic Bonuses: Can They Keep Teachers in Classrooms?
Some states are proposing salary hikes and offering teachers one-time bonuses. Will the money have an effect on post-pandemic retention?
8 min read
Woman paying bills.
Getty