Issue Report: Merit pay for teachers

Is merit-based pay for teachers a good idea?

The debate surrounding merit pay for teachers has existed for decades in many countries around the world. The debate has been particularly heated in the United States, where, since the 1920s, public schools began awarding pay primarily according to title and seniority rather than merit. Many attempts have been made to introduce merit pay systems throughout this period, but it never gained widespread popularity on a national level. Now, however, political leaders such as Barack Obama have supported merit pay for teachers. This has reinvigorated the debate, with many groups falling on either side. The National Education Association, for example, has opposed merit pay, while the United Federation of Teachers supports the idea. There are many questions and sub-debates within this larger debate, which frame the many pros and cons. Here is a summary of them: Does merit-based pay improve education? Does it improve the quality of teaching by incentivizing hard work? Does it help attract and retain quality teachers and weed out bad teachers? Does merit pay take the fun and passion out of teaching and over-focus it on measures? Does it create undesirable competition between teachers and undercut cooperation? Does it discourage teachers from going to needy schools? Can teacher merit be successfully measured? Or does varying student performance get in the way? Is merit pay fairer to teachers? Does it fall pray to principal cronyism? Does it encourage teachers to cheat? Does the market demonstrate the importance of pay for performance? If teachers should be paid more in general, is merit pay the best way to do it? What do past examples of merit pay around the world demonstrate? Overall, is merit pay for teachers good education policy?

Education: Does merit-based pay improve education?

Merit pay improves teaching and student learning

The Achievement Challenge Pilot Project (ACPP) is a five school merit pay program in Little Rock, Arkansas. Teachers could earn as much as an $11,000 bonus based on how much their students’ test scores improved. Researchers from the University of Arkansas reported on the program: “Students of teachers who are eligible for performance bonuses enjoy academic benefits. Further, many of the criticisms of merit pay programs simply have not proven true in Little Rock.”[1]

Merit pay gives teachers an incentive to work harder

Beth Lewis. "Pros and Cons of Merit Pay For Teachers".

“Incentivized teachers will work harder and produce better results. What motivation do teachers currently have to go above and beyond the job’s basic requirements? The simple possibility of extra cash would most likely translate into smarter teaching and better results for our children.”

Merit pay does nothing to improve student performance

A study by the Urban Institute found some positive short-lived effects of merit pay, but concluded that most merit pay plans “did not succeed at implementing lasting, effective … plans that had a demonstrated ability to improve student learning. …little evidence from other research…that incentive programs (particularly pay-for-performance) had led to improved teacher performance and student achievements.”[2]

Merit pay motivates teachers to over-focus on test scores

Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles. "How ‘Merit Pay’ Squelches Teaching". Boston Globe. September 28, 2005:

“The idea of merit pay, sometimes called pay for performance, was born in England around 1710. Teachers’ salaries were based on their students’ test scores on examinations in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The result was that teachers and administrators became obsessed with financial rewards and punishments, and curriculums were narrowed to include only the testable basics. … So drawing, science, and music disappeared. Teaching became more mechanical as teachers found that drill and rote repetition produced the ‘best’ results. Both teachers and administrators were tempted to falsify results, and many did. The plan was ultimately dropped, signaling the fate of every merit plan initiative ever since.”

Quality teachers: Does merit pay help attract/retain quality teachers?

Merit-based pay helps attract and keep quality teachers

Darcy Ann Olsen. "Teachers Deserve Merit Pay, Not Special Interest Pay". CATO. May 22, 2001:

“Pay for performance is not a new concept. It works for businessmen, lawyers, waitresses, travel agents, journalists, athletes, accountants, in fact, for most of us. Why not teachers? If a school faces a teacher shortage, let wages increase to attract them. Let schools compete to secure, retain and reward the best teachers. Let schools say “sayonara” to those unable or unwilling to get the job done.”

Merit-pay helps attract teachers where there are shortages

Beth Lewis. "Pros and Cons of Merit Pay For Teachers".

“We are in the middle of a teaching shortage. Merit pay would inspire potential teachers to give the profession more consideration as a viable career choice, rather than a personal sacrifice for the higher good. By tying teaching salaries to performance, the profession would look more modern and credible, thus attracting young college graduates to the classroom.”

Merit pay focuses teachers on measures over their passion

"Top Ten Reasons Why Merit Pay for Teachers Is a Terrible Idea". Education Portal. July 10th, 2007:

“7. The Definition of ‘Merit’ is Too Broad … Every performance based pay program for teachers that is currently in effect works differently. Some programs allow teachers to up their pay for things that don’t truly help students-like filling out paperwork-rather than things that can be less easily measured. It makes the idea of merit less meaningful for an individual who most likely became a teacher to help students.”

Merit pay undercuts valuable cooperation between teachers

"No merit to merit pay". United Teachers Los Angeles. November 9, 2007:

“Teacher unions have historically resisted merit pay proposals because they undermine one of the core principles of teaching and learning: collaboration. Whether it is the informal discussion that takes place in the lunchroom or the more formal exchanges based on grade level, department, or small learning communities, these are only successful because as teachers we understand teaching is about working together to help our students, not competition for better pay.”

Merit pay discourages teaching disadvantaged students

"Top Ten Reasons Why Merit Pay for Teachers Is a Terrible Idea". Education Portal. July 10th, 2007:

“4. Some Teachers are Punished … Should a teacher who chooses to teach at a large school, an inner city school, or a special needs school where tests scores are generally lower be punished? Definitely not, but that is exactly what some merit pay programs threaten to do.”

Measuring merit: Can teacher merit be accurately measured?

Teacher merit can be measured and help determine pay

Robert Holland. "Merit Pay for Teachers: Can Common Sense Come to Public Education?". Lexington Institute. October 2005:

“[Opponents of merit based pay] have argued that teacher evaluation is too subjective for merit pay to be distributed fairly…. [the] ‘subjectivity’ excuse for stonewalling merit pay is no longer valid, no matter what small degree of validity it ever had. The Great Excuse has been rendered null and void by a revolutionary development in education: the rise of value-added assessment (VAA)…. As pioneered by Dr. William Sanders at the University of Tennessee in the early 1990s, VAA enables education supervisors (and the teachers themselves) to look at objective evidence of how effectively the teachers are helping individual students improve their achievement test scores year to year. This statistical analysis can inform teachers who seek to improve. It can also provide a basis for handsomely rewarding those teachers who make a real difference with their students.”

Teacher merit is too hard to measure for merit-pay to be fair

"Oppose Merit-Based Pay for Teachers". The Falcon's View. March 10, 2009:

“the problem with merit-based pay is that there’s no reasonable, rational, consistent way to measure performance… teaching is more art than science. Every student is different, with a unique perspective, background, learning style, and, more importantly, pace of development. To penalize a teacher for having a group of students who develop more slowly than others is absurd. No matter how good the teacher is, there’s no way to force a child to develope faster than they’re capable of doing.”

Student performance does not demonstrate teacher performance

"Top Ten Reasons Why Merit Pay for Teachers Is a Terrible Idea". Education Portal. July 10th, 2007:

“There are several problems with basing how much a teacher should make on student performance. The most important: there are too many other variables besides teacher effort that determine an individual’s and a class’ performance.”

Merit pay for teachers is tied to unreliable standardized tests

"Top Ten Reasons Why Merit Pay for Teachers Is a Terrible Idea". Education Portal. July 10, 2007:

“1. Standardized Test Scores May Be Unreliable. Most merit pay programs are tied to the scores students receive on the tests required by Bush’s No Child Left Behind Law. As the American Federation for Teachers and the National Education Association have pointed out, these standardized test scores are seldom reliable and do not provide an accurate barometer of a teacher’s performance.”

Fairness: Is merit-based pay fair?

Better teachers should be paid more

President Barack Obama said in March of 2009: teachers should be treated “like the professionals they are while also [being held] more accountable. Good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement, and asked to accept more responsibilities for lifting up their schools.”[3]

President Barack Obama said in March of 2009: “It’s time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones.”[4]

Teachers should be paid on merit, not seniority and titles

"Link Teacher Pay, Student Gains." An Atlanta Journal-Constitution. October 14, 2005.:

“As substitutes for performance-based standards, school systems now reward teachers on degrees and seniority. Yet neither of those measures may correlate with student achievement. In this competitive economy, companies would close their doors if they paid low-performing employees the highest salaries just because they’d been there a long time or had a grad school diploma on their wall.”[5]

Merit pay punishes teachers assigned to "bad" students

"the final word on why merit pay is bullshit". Journeys of Jack Tripper. April 29, 2009:

“It penalizes teachers who are assigned students with bad parents or bad backgrounds”.

While teachers can be incentivized, students cannot

"Top Ten Reasons Why Merit Pay for Teachers Is a Terrible Idea". Education Portal. July 10th, 2007:

“Teachers only have so much control over how much and how fast a child can learn. Even if they are willing to go the extra mile, state law may not allow them to do so. For example, in California, teachers cannot require students to stay after class or school to get help.”

Merit pay for teachers risks favoritism and cronyism

A merit-based system creates a risk of favoritism from principals, which creates moral and legal issues.

Merit pay motivates teachers to cheat on test-scoring

Merit pay creates an incentive for teachers to cheat, by improving student test scores so that they can appear to be doing better as a result of the teacher’s work, resulting in bonuses and higher pay. Obviously, the resulting differences in pay would not be fair.

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