Why Merit Pay Doesn't Work

The first couple of posts of 2013 for Poli Chi will focus on New Year's Resolutions that the US government should have. This post is dedicated to all the teachers out there.

Merit pay is heralded as the new frontier on how to compensate teachers and promote student achievement. Teachers in the end stand to benefit from it the most so why is there so much pushback from the teaching community whenever merit pay comes up in contract negotiations?

Firstly, it's not a new idea. Merit pay has actually been around since the 1920s AND has been implemented several times. Why haven't you heard of the trial experiments of merit pay? Because they weren't successful. During the various trials, students who had teachers with merit pay did NOT do better on tests than students who had teachers with no monetary incentives.

Yet, despite implementation failures, backers of merit pay continue to push for it, because it is seen as a way to get people from top universities, who would otherwise go into the private sector, into the teaching profession instead. Somehow people interested in making a lot of money by being a stock broker or engineer will want to change career tracks for the possibility of an extra $5000. Consider that the average of first year teacher's pay is pretty low, and this noble idea starts falling apart at the seams very quickly.

Merit pay also perpetuates the idea that the best teachers have the best test scores. My favorite times in school were not ones where I was taking a test or preparing for one, and I'm a good test taker. I always scored above average (whatever that means).  What I remember are all the fun projects my teachers would come up with to get us engaged and thinking about not just the work we were doing but the world we live in, and I'm sure that the feeling is mutual among many of my readers. As much as corporate reformers like to think that education is a selfish task (and if they get their way, it will be just that), education is actually for the greater good of the community. It doesn't matter if you are well-educated if the people around you aren't.

This is a very important point, because people get into teaching to help better society not for selfish reasons. Good teachers value education in itself. They do not see it as something that can be measured by tests. Once education becomes a business, education stops being a noble pursuit, and it just becomes about the short-term and money. Is that really what we want education to be? I want to see all teachers adequately compensated both monetarily and with respect, because they are all working together to create a better society full of educated citizens that will help move us forward as a country. Or do we not want that?

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