I was listening to the gab station yesterday (the new guys on 101.5 at least let callers finish their sentences), and the subject was merit pay. The folks who love merit pay just don't understand how anyone could be against it: "It's what happens in the 'real world!'"
I teach elementary school - nothing is more "real" than the world I deal with every day: broken homes, children with learning and emotional disabilities, economic struggles... that's as "real" as it gets. But let's put that aside and talk about merit pay. Study after study has shown that it doesn't help student achievement, but that doesn't stop some people from advocating for it. It seems "logical'; it seems "fair."
Until you start asking people how, exactly, it should be set up. Because when you starting asking some questions, merit pay looks quite a bit less appealing:
- Are we going to spend any extra money on merit pay? To me, this is probably the most important question in developing any merit pay scheme. The "reformers" who push for merit pay are the first ones to cry that we simply can't afford to spend any more on our schools (that's crap, but let's not go there right now).
Merit pay cheerleaders often point to other businesses and their practices of rewarding efficiency. That's fine, except a more effective salesperson makes more money for her company; a more effective teacher does not make more money for her school. This is a critical distinction; while teachers are part of the lifeblood of the country's economic engine, their contribution does not redound back to them. Does Bill Gates's Third Grade teacher get paid extra for having nurtured a multi-billionaire?
So more effective teachers can't generate an immediate stream of revenue that can be used to pay them. And we "don't have any more money" (lie) to add to a merit pay system. Logically...
- Aren't we really talking about taking money away from some teachers and giving it to others? I mean, that's what this is all about, right? You want to take away money from "bad" teachers - and even "average" and "good" teachers - and give it to "great" teachers. OK...
- How much money are we talking? One of the problems with the education "reform" debate is that, even though everyone's been to school, very few outside of the profession know how schools are actually run. When I tell laypeople the following, their eyebrows almost always go up:
At my school, a starting teacher with a BA makes about $50K a year. It takes 24 years to get to the "top of the guide" - the highest possible salary you can make as a teacher. If you earn a masters degree, and get another 45 hrs of graduate credit, you will make $96K - almost double.
Now, are we talking about a system where we're going to take away money from the bottom 10% and give it to the top 10%? Because that would mean most likely taking money away from less-experienced teachers (teaching five years or less) and giving it to more experienced ones. And even if we don't: taking $10K away from a teacher who makes $90K isn't nearly as big of a deal as taking $10K away from a teacher who makes $50K.
Or are we going to take away some from everybody - even the merely "good" teachers - and giving it to the "great" teachers? Does that seem "fair" to the people who are doing their jobs and doing them well, but not exceptionally?
And what if we're talking about rewards bigger than 10%? Are we prepared to see that big of a gap in pay between people who are doing the same job?
Now, some would argue that the solution is to just do away with pay scales based on seniority. Well...
- If merit pay only makes sense without seniority, are you prepared to tell people who've been teachers for 20 years that their pay will be cut by 25% - or more? I'm not talking about "bad" teachers either - I'm talking about those "average" and "good" teachers - just not the very best. After all that time in the system, are we prepared to tell them the rules have changed? What do you think that will do for morale of the entire teaching corps? How pleasant will it be for the "great" teachers at work after this?
- If the goal is to have every teacher be an excellent teacher, won't they eventually ALL have to have merit pay? I mean, if we're worried about what's "fair," shouldn't every kid have an equally great teacher? And that will cost more overall, right?
- How are we going to decide which kids get to have a merit pay teacher? Again, we want to be "fair," right? Are we going to have lotteries? Because Mom and Dad are sure going to be pissed when they find out their little Kindergartner has just a "good" teacher, and not a "great" one.
(How will they know? Salaries for teachers are published on databases everywhere. Another great perk of the job...)
- Who or what decides which teachers get how much merit pay? Do you think all principals are fair? Do you think using standardized test results is fair (it's not)? Are you happy to have such a strong incentive for teachers to concentrate only on the tests? How will principals assign children to classrooms if merit pay becomes a factor; will it be in the interests of the students, or for the "fairness" of the teachers? What about those teachers who teach subjects where they DON'T use standardized tests? How will we decide the art teacher is "great" while the music teacher is just "good."
Despite all of these problems, I know some people will still insist that merit pay is critically important, because "everyone else" is subject to some sort of merit pay. But, see, here's the thing...
Unless you work on commission, when you get significantly more money on your job, it's because you've been promoted. And there is no next level for a teacher other than principal. Not everybody can or should be a principal; in fact, I'd argue, a great Third Grade teacher should stay with her students, teaching them, rather than dealing with the administrative issues a principal spends most of her time with.
Now, a good case can be made that we need another level of teacher: a master teacher, who can oversee curriculum and supervise colleagues. But that's not what we're talking about with merit pay: we're talking about different pay for people to do the same job. Significantly differing pay should come with significantly differing job responsibilities.
"But we don't have that now!" says the corporate reformer. "The senior teachers make more!" Yes, but everyone is on the same pay scale. Everyone gets to earn their reward if they stay in the profession. Which, if you think about it, saves schools money, because they get to pay new teachers less.
This has nothing to do, by the way, with punishing "bad" teachers. Because we shouldn't cut their pay; we should get rid of them. There should be a streamlined system of tenure review subject to out-of-district adjudication to dismiss poor teachers (assuming, of course, there are better teachers ready to take their place - are you sure that there are after the last two years of pounding teachers into the ground?). Unions are for this, by the way, although it's really not that necessary, considering 40% of teachers never earn tenure in the first place.
What we're really talking about with merit pay is radically restructuring teacher compensation to make it less like the real world: wide variations in pay without wide variations in responsibilities. All for no proven effect. It makes no sense.
And, when you think about it, it's not "fair."