I’m not opposed to merit pay for teachers on the grounds that I am looking to protect the jobs of incompetent colleagues, or my own job, for that matter. I’m not opposed to it because, as a teacher, I’m afraid of being publicly judged. And I’m certainly not opposed to a system of merit pay because I’m resistant to change. No, the reason I’m opposed to concept of merit pay for teachers—at least the models of merit pay as they are generally being debated in the United States and, most recently, here in Canada—is that they are ill-conceived, simplistic and are very unlikely to have any lasting impact on the success of students in our schools.
When B.C. leadership hopeful Kevin Falcon indicated a few weeks ago that he was willing to include merit pay for his province’s teachers as a plank in his political campaign, the reaction was predictable, polarized and protective. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t too surprised by this. If we’re serious about revamping the model we use to compensate and value teachers, all of the parties involved need to be at the table throughout the entire process. Thoughtful, respectful conversation on this issue will always trump media storms and political manoeuvrings. We have to think more carefully about our motivations for introducing these ideas as well as our long-term goals for our schools and our students. I’m not confident that this is being done to an adequate degree.
We also need to think clearly about the long term costs of implementing a new compensation model. With teacher salaries and benefits taking up the lion’s share of any education budget, it is important to consider what would happen if a teacher merit plan actually worked! Teacher merit pay is often lumped into conversations about teacher accountability. Financial accountability cannot be ignored in the process.
The idea of paying educators based on student performance fails to acknowledge the complexity of the teaching enterprise. The use of some narrowly devised value-added metrics to assign bonuses to teachers represents, not only a misapplication of this type of assessment tool, but it tries to bypass the need to recognize that student performance on the standardized evaluations that would be necessary under such a scheme cannot possibly capture the complexity involved. Basing teacher performance solely on student performance assumes a simplicity about the work of teaching that is simply not there.
Finally, the idea of merit pay for teachers may yield some short-term gains, but both the model and the gains are likely to have a limited shelf life. Again, on the one hand, the cost of ensuring that the scheme is both scalable and sustainable would be, by all accounts, prohibitive. On the other hand, we already know that, while high stakes testing can actually draw attention to areas on which focus is required, they can also sideline other valuable aspects of the school experience. In the end, the implementation of a merit pay scheme based on student performance runs the serious risk of narrowing the scope of classroom practice even more. In effect, a model designed to improve student achievement may, in fact, serve to have the opposite effect.
That said, I’m all for having a discussion about how to restructure the way that we compensate teachers for the work that they do. I don’t know many people who would argue that the current experience-education matrix of determining teacher value represents a type of international gold standard. But let’s be a little more creative, respectful and intelligent about it.
I don’t know about my colleagues, but I feel that I’m pretty well-compensated as a teacher. I recognize the value of my benefits package, the freedom provided by the structure of the school year in terms of vacation time and the fact that I have been paying into a pretty enviable pension plan. While I’m not adverse to higher levels of pay (I do have a family and a mortgage), I don’t think that the prospect of remuneration for student results is going to make me approach my job in a different way. I’m not going to spend additional hours preparing lessons. I’m not necessarily going to teach more effectively. I won’t be more dedicated to the students that I teach. I like to think that, while there is always room for improvement, monetary incentives are not going to bring me to a new plateau of excellence.
Similarly, for teachers who should likely be considering another profession (and there are some), a whole new model of compensation is unlikely to provide the motivation that they need to work harder or perform better.
So, there you have a sense (admittedly brief) of why I can’t take seriously the argument that teacher merit pay is going to improve teacher quality and student achievement in this country.
But, I’m not done. I do have a modest proposal for a performance incentive program of my own, based on what I know motivates me as a teacher and, as Daniel Pink suggests in his book, Drive, motivates most people involved in work that is both complicated and complex.
That will be the topic of my next posting.
Until then, do you believe that a system of merit pay is what is needed to improve teacher quality in this country? Do you think that teachers need incentives to do better work? What would your system look like? Feel free to take issue with anything that I’ve said so far. Feel free to offer your own thoughts and ideas!