Merit Pay Undermines Public Education

The first week of school has just concluded, and my new principal has held true to his word by spending time out in the classrooms. After school on Friday, a coworker came up to me to let me know that the principal was impressed with “my” classroom. He had seen each class period’s learning objectives and agenda clearly listed in bright colors on the walls. The students’ freshly created posters containing their interpretation of the school agreements were an obvious focal point. If he looked carefully, I’m sure he also noticed that the displayed books, posters and classroom materials are student-centered and culturally relevant. So, this compliment should have been a source of pride. However, I knew that it was a compliment I could not take credit for.

My classroom is team-taught. The special education teacher and I have shared our classroom as equals for eight years. We are both strongly tied to our school’s Equity Team, where discussions of cultural relevance are common place. When the kids come up with classroom norms, we do this together as a team. What is found on the walls and bookshelves in our classroom is the product of our collaborative relationship with each other and with other school teams. When an administrator who is new to our school comes through the classroom and evaluates its contents, he cannot possibly see the deep levels of collaboration between me and my teaching partner. In this case, the merit may be easily misconstrued.

The whiteboards proudly displayed in our room always contain our day’s lesson and the students’ learning objectives. This is true no matter which of us is leading the class. New vocabulary is underlined and central to the lessons for our students. Visuals are added for the English Language Learners. An evaluator would likely deem that worthy of merit, but again it only reflects on the collaborative nature of our school. Last year, I worked very closely with one of our Bilingual Resource Teachers. She modeled effective classroom strategies for English Language Learners for me, strategies that I now see as effective for all my students. Without her, this growth in my own practice would not have occurred.

Education is a highly collaborative field. Teachers grow through working with each other. Problem solving happens in a team environment, and in the best situations, new ideas and creative solutions are shared, helping many to benefit from each person’s work. This does not mesh well with the basic principles of merit pay. Merit pay is a simple business solution that rewards people based on the quality of outcomes or based on a manager’s perception of their effectiveness. In this way, pay becomes competitive. This competition is supposed to increase the effectiveness of everyone in the system. The reality is that this will be detrimental to a system that thrives on collaboration. Within competitive environments, people jockey to be seen and to take credit for ideas, in effect, squelching many avenues of collaboration.

Some proponents of merit pay have pointed to rewarding whole teams as a solution to this dilemma. To take out the possible subjectivity of the administrators, they also recommend using student performance on standardized tests as a means of measuring the quality of instruction. Even setting aside the biases inherent in standardized testing, this still leads us to murky waters. Which members do we include on this team when determining merit?

Consider my fictitious student, Yolanda. Yolanda starts her morning unhappily because her parents are engaged in an argument. She runs out to catch the bus and only makes it because the bus driver waits an extra minute, knowing Yolanda has near perfect attendance. Yolanda gets to school, but doesn’t have money to get breakfast. Luckily, the head cafeteria worker notices and slips her a granola bar. Yolanda stops by to see the school social worker on her way to class, because she is still too upset from her hectic morning to face her peers. On the way there, she smiles, because the security officer passes her and greets her by name and her favorite art teacher reminds her that she gets to work with clay later today. After the social worker helps her piece herself together, Yolanda is finally ready to get to class. However, on the way there she frowns because she has forgotten her pencil. Seeing her distress, the custodian who is sweeping the hall pulls one off her cart and offers it to Yolanda. By the time Yolanda makes it into her homeroom and fills in the first bubble on her test, she has interacted with many adults. Each adult affects her day and plays a part in her attitude towards school. Furthermore, the reason Yolanda is taking her standardized test in her familiar homeroom, is because the school leadership team realized that she would perform better in a known, comfortable environment. She will also receive the appropriate accommodations on her test, because her special education case manager has gotten to know her well and has stayed on top of her Individualized Education Plan. This has been done in collaboration with her teachers from elementary school, all of whom spent years forming a meaningful bond with Yolanda and understood the importance of helping her transition to middle school.

When Yolanda increases her test score that morning, who deserves the credit? If she doesn’t increase her test score, who is to blame? There is no real answer to either question, because Yolanda’s performance cannot be evaluated by any mathematical formula. She is affected by home, the community and many prior years of school. Her performance is driven by both internal and external factors. In a complex educational setting within a larger, even more complex, society all of these factors are interconnected and cannot be broken down into a pay scale for teachers.

Merit pay also does not account for that teacher who takes on the most challenging students. Those of us who have been in the profession for years know that when you do your job well, the most difficult students get placed in your room. While we love and nurture students with behavioral and emotional disorders and push them to grow, their performance can be sporadic. When we are successful, these students change and grow, but the effort that goes into this change cannot be measured on a standardized test.

It is clear that advocates of merit pay do not understand the nuances of my profession or the power of collaboration. Proponents of merit pay are operating under faulty assumptions. They believe that in our capitalist society, money must be the greatest motivator. Teachers do not enter into this profession for the money. They teach because they are motivated by educating children. The days I am happiest in my career are the days when I can see my lesson plans resonating for students. When a struggling student suddenly understands something, his whole face lights up and so does the face of his teacher. These are the moments that keep teachers walking back into underfunded, overcrowded schools year after year. The answer to increasing teaching performance cannot be found in bonuses. If more pay is offered to teachers, it should be offered to provide the profession with more respect and dignity and to acknowledge teaching as a worthwhile profession, not as a carrot in front of a mule.

“It takes a village to raise a child.” This African proverb rings true in public education. Like all good educators, I am constantly reflecting on the effectiveness of my teaching strategies. My summer was filled with books on best teaching practices, professional development opportunities, and meaningful conversations with my peers. I am just one small piece of a much bigger picture for our children. I am surrounded by a wealth of knowledge and expertise, and I learn from the greatness of others. I am fortunate to be a part of a learning community where we share ideas and challenge each other. Because of this, I will continue to shake my head in concern any time someone mentions “rewarding” teachers with merit pay.

Related Links:

Washington Post – Lyndsey Layton on merit pay

Why merit pay for teachers sounds good, but isn’t

NEA – examining merit pay


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2 Responses to Merit Pay Undermines Public Education

  1. Bill Cary says:

    I strongly agree with this post. Early in my career my principal gave me black marks because I didn’t have an up to date bulletin board. End of “merit pay”! For thirty some years I thought outside of the box and challenged administrators when I thought they were wrong. Not a good approach in a “merit pay” situation. To me it’s time to kick the “bean counters” out of education.

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