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The Merit Pay Problem

Posted by Anthony on May 20, 2009

By Anthony J. Aschettino

Most Americans like it when the media can reduce any complex idea to a catchy phrase or word, since it relieves them of having to confront the intricacies of navigating policy. Take, for example, the idea that better teachers should earn more money than their counterparts. The media and policy makers have happily reduced that concept to the term “merit pay”, which sounds nice and logical; after all, shouldn’t teachers who are more proficient at their trade end up with a larger check to thank them for their role in helping improve education in America?

As with most other ideas, however, the issue is much more complex than that. Certainly it sounds like a good idea on the surface if for nothing more than it mirrors the private sector where better performers earn more, and it surely seems as if it would provide an incentive for teachers (and aspiring teachers) to “go that extra mile” in their trade (as if the vast majority already don’t put in many extra hours to help students). Indeed, most people, including teachers, would likely agree that rewarding good teachers is in and of itself an excellent idea.

The problem comes not with the theory but, as is the devil in most cases, in the practice. Sure, everyone knows “good teachers”; in the overwhelming majority of cases it’s easier to point out the “bad teachers” since there are very few of them whereas most people who decide to go into education do it for the love of teaching rather than any expected monetary gains. The question then is really “who defines what teachers should get merit pay?” coupled with “who decides the amount?”

In other words, what are the parameters to be used in determining which teachers are going to get a piece of the finite amount of money available in already hard pressed school budgets put aside for “merit pay”? Each potential avenue of decision here has its problem: do we allow administrators to determine merit pay? That opens a terribly wide door for patronage and recriminations that people are “playing favorites” as well as allowing subjective opinions to help determine the outcome.

Do we base merit pay on student grades? If so, you would punish teachers who are willing to teach in sub-par districts where grades are naturally lower and simply reward those who teach in more affluent districts where the student body has support from outside the classroom. As has been argued many times before, you would simply force teachers who love teaching and really want to help the students who so desperately need their help to choose between teaching in a disadvantaged district for less money or going to a more cushy job where they could be assured of merit pay every year without too much more effort.

Judging teachers on “student improvement” isn’t a total solution either, since that would potentially have the opposite effect to the previous scenario: in a district where students were scoring, say, a 2.0 out of 5.0 it might be feasible to see regular yearly improvement. That is, of course, a good thing. How about, on the other hand, a teacher in a district where her students average a 4.75 out of 5.0? If the students are all, or mostly all, getting “A’s” is it right to punish that teacher (by not allocating merit pay) because she cannot get them all into the “A+” range? In either case, there will be terrible pressure on teachers to “inflate” grades so that more merit pay money can be allocated and will again punish those teachers who are conscientious in doling out the grades not that they want to give the students but that the students actually earn.

The problem with merit pay, in a nutshell, is that it is a good idea that is being approached the wrong way. Teachers who are truly excellent should get the opportunity to see that excellence rewarded; there is, after all, arguably no job more important to the future of America than that of a teacher since education remains the single most critical factor in an individuals chance to succeed in life. Yet before one goes running to try and implement this idea, care must be taken to ensure that any system of merit pay will involve appropriate measures to ensure that the system is not open for abuse.

In reality, any such system would have to be based upon a wide-range of standards and recognitions complimented by the judicious application of common sense and logic. It will, no doubt, be very difficult to come up with such a system that is fair both to the teachers, students, and taxpayers who will be funding this effort, but there really is no other choice. The public cannot and should not allow a watered down version of merit pay to get rushed through legislation simply because it “sounds good” and “makes sense”; it does indeed both sound good and make sense, but there are few things worse than good theories practiced badly.

For the sake of the educational system in America, as we ever strive to improve and reach new heights with future generations, the idea of “merit pay” must be carefully considered and thought out before any steps are taken to realize it. Implementing it badly will only hurt education when such an idea can instead truly help it.

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