30 December 2008 11:12 AM

Merit Pay For Teachers

by Dr. Rick

I’m an old teacher, and I’m for merit pay. Especially for a new generation of teachers.


I’m concerned about the future of my profession. More than ever before, America needs good teachers. There was a time when our colleges and universities had plenty of the smartest, most creative students training to go into our schools where they remained for entire careers, nurtured, if not by astronomical salaries then by a comfortable living and a community’s respect.


What’s happened? Today, teachers join the profession and burn out after five years. The “best and the brightest” are swayed by other opportunities that never even existed a generation or two ago. Some people aren’t as motivated by “doing good” as they are by “doing well,” as if the two are mutually exclusive.


This past spring, the primary elections were almost devoid of education talk, perhaps because of a fear of upsetting the powerful teacher unions. But slowly, inevitably, education is sneaking back into the nation’s political discourse. There’s much to talk about: charter schools, vouchers, student performance, online education, and an endless list of ideas about how to improve our students’ learning. None, I would say, is more worthy of discussion than merit pay for teachers.


Teachers deserve better pay. There aren’t many more important jobs. And yet we insist on paying our teachers in the same way – seniority first – that we’ve paid them for generations. 


We’ve all heard the arguments.


We can’t have merit pay for teachers because there are transient students who don’t stay in one school long enough to develop skills and knowledge. There are so many non-English speaking students. There are so many special-needs students. There are so many socio-economic differences among neighborhoods. “Competition” among teachers is “unhealthy” and could hurt feelings. There are too many uncontrollable variables to keep track of, and there’s no “fair” way to evaluate teachers.


I would argue that we must have merit pay for teachers because we need an avenue to reward motivated teachers who want to remain in the classroom, where their passions lie, rather than move “upward” to administration, where the higher pay is. If it’s done right, it can reward hard work and results. It can create esprit de corps. It injects some “real world” into education, a change that many entrepreneurial college and university students will find attractive, promising, and contemporary. And, it encourages fixing a problem with the creative thinking we purport to value for our students.


I’ve been in both the public and private arenas of education. I was a part of the seniority-first system and played by its rules for years. As a young teacher, I was motivated more from within than from any external incentives. I was a good teacher (if I do say so myself) because I cared about what I did, believed in my role as someone who could affect the future, and was proud of my career choice.  I often saw examples of good teachers being paid less than mediocre (or worse) teachers, simply because of longevity.  It wasn’t fair then; it isn’t fair now. I have countless anecdotes. So do teachers all over the country.


I’ve also been part of the private sector, where merit pay (“bonus”) is a regular part of life, in jobs every bit as challenging and complex as teaching (if not as personally fulfilling – in my humble opinion). I’ve never seen a perfect evaluation system, but there are many models that are as fair as possible, simple, flexible to meet diverse needs, and reflect people’s buy-in.


I can’t begin to tell you the numbers of young people I’ve met in business who would make wonderful teachers – creative, entrepreneurial, assertive, organized, smart, unafraid of challenges – but who dismiss teaching because of its reputation for lockstep pay and tolerance for mediocrity. When I suggest teaching to them, they often say, “You know, I did consider it once, but . . . ”  And then they shake their heads sadly.


This makes my heart ache. So much talent in the wrong place!


A good teacher merit pay system must acknowledge that test scores can’t be the sole criterion for rewarding teachers, although, let’s be realistic, it must play some role. But there are lots of other criteria that can be a part, as well. In business, bonuses are frequently divided into categories that reflect business results (how’s the company doing?) and individual goals (how are you doing on that project?). Schools can do the same. When half your bonus is contingent on the success of the school’s goals, suddenly everyone works together.


People are motivated by rewards, by professional advancement, by respect, by involvement in their careers, by a feeling that they’re improving their profession. It’s high time we treat teachers as the professionals they are, keep the good ones in the classroom if that’s where they want to be, and get rid of the ones who have no business being in front of our children.


And you bright young folks in college and university now, come help us build this new world! We need you.




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