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Leadership, Opinion, Teaching

Teacher Merit Pay in Canada

Getting What We Pay For

My greatest fear surrounding the idea of introducing teacher merit pay here in Canada is not that it will fail to have an effect on our schools. My greatest fear is that it will!

A big part of me knows that if we were to begin to link cash bonuses to how well students perform on standardized tests, we would likely begin to see an increase in how well students do on standardized tests. If we were to link some part of our compensation model for teachers to an evaluation of how well teachers understood and implemented certain “best practices”, I have no doubt that the way teachers teach would be changed substantially. 

As I indicated in my last post on this topic, I’m not against re-examining the way that we compensate teachers. It may be true that the experience/education rubric on which most pay grids are based may no longer be effective in encouraging the type of schools that will meet our needs in the 21st century. And, I’m not naïve enough (anymore) to think that teachers are going to do their most effective work just because they “love kids”.

But I think that we need to be clear about the type of school system that we want to leave for future generations and how the type of teaching (and learning) that would come from any type of “pay for performance” would affect that vision.

First, I know that as soon as we define what counts as student success under a merit pay system—and we will have to clearly define this—we automatically sideline other types of gains that may, in fact, be very desirable. We’ve seen this happen in the current school climate where focus is placed almost exclusively on literacy and numeracy.  Instead of opening up the walls of our schools to include alternative ways of learning, new ways of thinking about literacy (and what counts as literacy) and possibilities for drawing community resources into the schoolhouse, I fear that merit pay will further narrow the already tight definitions around success, student progress and school improvement.

The second thought that I have has to do with the working conditions that will be promoted and fostered under a “pay for performance” system. I fear that teaching will become even less collaborative, more isolated and more focused on the implementation of “right practice” as opposed to the exploration of new possibilities for teaching and learning.

In my last posting on this issue, I promised some alternatives to a merit pay system, alternatives which could also have the desired effect of improving the quality of our schools and the effectiveness of our teaching. Since that posting, I’ve had a number of conversations with my colleagues about this topic and, although many ideas emerged, very few of them involved paying teachers any more for the work that we do. First and foremost, they involved imaginatively changing the way that teachers are encouraged (and permitted) to carry out this work!

Here are my top three imaginings.

First, imagine how effective teaching could become if we were to get serious about the power of collaboration. We must do something to build this into daily practice. Currently, the first time during the day that I get a chance to have a meaningful conversation with another colleague is in the faculty lounge at lunch, and from my experience, these conversations rarely center on curriculum design and implementation!

In my own school district, elementary teachers receive, on average, 220 minutes of planning time each week but, in most cases, this is staffed and scheduled in such a way that opportunity is not provided for teachers to meet with grade level partners, let alone other teachers in the school. So my first idea for increasing teaching effectiveness is not simply about more planning time. It’s about creating an infrastructure that encourages more opportunity for authentic professional conversation and collaboration.

Second, imagine what could happen if we were to challenge the firmly entrenched assumption that development and learning are primarily tied to age. What if we were to challenge the idea that “if I’m a seven year old, here is the list of skills and knowledge that I need to know before I become an eight year old”? As soon as we begin reflecting on that single assumption, and start to imagine what schools might be like if we were to loosen the hold it has on our thinking, the nature of our work as teachers could be opened up in ways that could be more effective for both students and teachers. I can imagine possibilities like cross-grade projects, skills-based pods of learning for specific curriculum areas, student-directed learning initiatives, and more space for well-designed differentiated instruction. The entire architecture of schools could change to better accommodate the complexity that largely goes unrecognized under our current model.

Finally, imagine what could happen if we began to shift the direction in which information about teaching and learning flows. In the past 20 years, I have noticed a large change in the way that teacher knowledge is valued and sought. These days, much of what is considered to be “best practice” comes from outside our classrooms and schools. Presented as research-based, it is packaged, published and, in some cases, scripted for immediate use. While many of these strategies and approaches may be valuable, handing them to teachers in this way effectively short-circuits an extremely important part of the teaching and learning relationship and implies a lack of trust in the power of the complexity of what happens in schools!  An essential part of feeling like a professional comes from the sense that members are contributing to what counts as professional knowledge. In an effort to fast-track the process of school improvement, a good deal of this sense has been lost. But I imagine that we can get it back through the forging of more deliberate relationships between field-based professionals and the research community. As just one example, strategic alliances could be built that leverage the experience and resources of university-based researchers to enable strong and lasting connections with teachers in school communities.

Of all the ideas that have emerged connected with improving the quality of teaching, the least imaginative is merit pay. It is an idea that would, no doubt, have a tremendous impact on education here in Canada, but I think that the impact would be regrettable and difficult to reverse.

What are some of the alternative strategies about which you have been thinking? Is this issue a part of your conversations with your colleagues? If you are a teacher, what do you see as the initiative that has affected your own teaching practice the most in the past few years?