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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Merit Pay: For Love and Money

As veteran educators retire and good young teachers drop out, incentive pay may be the answer to making the center hold.
By Roberta Furger
Credit: Rob Colvin/Getty Images

PREDICTION: Merit pay and other new approaches will be seen as the best answer to getting and retaining gifted teachers.

In the world of K-12 education, incentive pay for teachers -- programs that reward good teaching and encourage the most effective educators to share their talents with the highest-need students -- have become the reform du jour.

Since last year, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded nearly $75 million in grants to schools and school districts interested in developing systems that reward good teaching and compensate teachers for taking jobs in hard-to-staff schools (low-performing and typically high-poverty schools). Districts from California to Texas to North Carolina are tapping into these new funds to address two of the thorniest issues in education today: how to develop fair and accurate ways to measure effective teaching, and how to find sustainable strategies to balance the distribution of experienced teachers, who now tend to be disproportionately represented in high-performing (and typically more affluent) schools.

Few people argue with the underlying principles fueling the growing interest in incentive plans. Just as we assign the most accomplished doctors to oversee the most complex medical cases, shouldn't we be making sure that the students and schools with the greatest need are taught and led by our most experienced and effective educators? And shouldn't schools, like businesses, acknowledge and reward good work? Sure, agree many teachers, parents, administrators, and policy makers. But the devil, as they say, is in the details.

In Florida, for example, teachers widely criticized a merit-pay plan approved by the state legislature in 2006 as unfair and divisive because it allowed for only one-quarter of all teachers to receive bonuses. The plan has since been revamped to include, among other things, compensation for teams of teachers who have a role in moving kids and schools forward.

"We've been down this road before," says Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University's Charles E. Ducommon Professor of Education, noting that merit-pay plans were also introduced in the 1920s, the 1950s, and the 1980s. "We know that there are strategies and options that have some good potential, but there are also really predictable pitfalls to be aware of and design around," she cautions. The risk of failing to learn from past lessons is significant, Darling-Hammond adds, because poorly thought-out programs can cause teachers to become demoralized and even leave their districts, just what the programs are meant to prevent.

Still, many teachers applaud these efforts for developing holistic metrics for effective teaching and for including classroom teachers in all aspects of program development and implementation. Administrators, for their part, are finding these programs to be effective at encouraging experienced teachers to transfer to the most challenging schools.

The best incentive plans are those that go beyond rewarding select teachers whose students score higher on standardized tests, says Darling-Hammond; they use multiple measures to evaluate teacher performance and create career ladders capable of supporting and rewarding all teachers. "You don't just want to lift the boat of a few teachers," she advises. "The goal should be to improve the instructional enterprise in an entire school or district."

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer to Edutopia.

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Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

Comments (19)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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Valerie Edmiston's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Merit pay is a bad idea that cannot be made good, no matter what bells and whistles get attached . I am starting my 27th year of teaching Kindergarten and my philosophy today is the same as it was at the start of my first year of teaching. The most important job I have is to instill a love of learning that will in turn help my students become self motivated to be the best they can be. If I do my job, then they will learn anything I put in front of them. When a high school student comes back to visit and tells me he loves school because of what we did in Kindergarten - there is no test in existence that can measure that success.

Chris Sweitzer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read Roberta Furger's article about merit pay and was caught off guard. Her article mentions that many teachers would agree with merit pay. I have not met one teacher who would agree to it. While many people outside of the education field would like to see merit pay enacted, they are exactly the reason teachers do not agree with it. People outside of the classroom have no idea what it's like inside the classroom. We don't deal with widgets that are uniform and act similarly. Every class is different with 20-30 different students who behave differently individually as well as in groups. There is no fair way to dole out merit pay. There just isn't. Maybe there should be a program to fund merit pay for parenting. Then the parents who do not value education and show no support for their children or their teachers would start to sing different tune.

Chris Sweitzer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read Roberta Furger's article about merit pay and was caught off guard. Her article mentions that many teachers would agree with merit pay. I have not met one teacher who would agree to it. While many people outside of the education field would like to see merit pay enacted, they are exactly the reason teachers do not agree with it. People outside of the classroom have no idea what it's like inside the classroom. We don't deal with widgets that are uniform and act similarly. Every class is different with 20-30 different students who behave differently individually as well as in groups. There is no fair way to dole out merit pay. There just isn't. Maybe there should be a program to fund merit pay for parenting. Then the parents who do not value education and show no support for their children or their teachers would start to sing different tune.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think merit pay for teachers is an appalling idea. I have worked in a lovely, private college-prep school with engaged and engaging students. I now work in a low-performing, underclass school with lovely students who I work hard to engage. Both schools have their own rewards. I don't need merit pay to make me work harder as a professional.

California's experiment with merit pay given to schools with higher test scores a few years ago still leaves a bad taste in my mouth and every educator I know. It was unfair and expensive to all of us as taxpayers.

With the current dearth of capable administrators, I certainly don't want my pay in the hands of the ones who are here. Look at adminstration classes; who is in them? There are a large number of coaches who have been teaching the unfortunate classes principals deem throwaway classes and who now want more money. There are the quite young teachers who don't like teaching and want to get away from daily contact with kids and fast-track into management. It is bad enough that this is the sort of management that evaluates teachers currently, we don't need to exacerbate matters with having them control bonuses.

Perhaps it would be better to concentrate on trying to get highly qualified administrators. Why is it assumed that principals and other administrators have all the answers, and the problem is they have to deal with teachers who will only work hard if they are paid more. It is insulting and quite contrary to fact.

Jon Simon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My time spent teaching in public school was humiliating, not due to the students, but to many of the teachers and administrators. Bright people leave the field since they're not welcomed or appreciated for their knowledge and abilities; money has little to do with it. A few thousand dollars here and there will only keep the most financially desperate educators in the classroom. Most of the teachers I know who have more than 20 years of experience cannot wait to walk out the door and never return.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The problem with merit pay is it is often related to student performance. That becomes an issue right away because high poverty/low performing schools have many variables that other schools do not. One is high student turnover. It is difficult to track the performance of the students when they leave the school. My school has about 100% turnover. Another problem with merit pay is it may attract teachers to the school for the wrong reason.
If I were in charge of the purse strings I would make the physical structure of the schools the best in the high poverty areas. Tear down the old schools and put some thought in to rebuilding facilities that can be community centers as well as schools. We need to team with the parents and community. Having buildings and supplies that are designed for that purpose is key. We need to have high tech facilities that will allow us to involve the entire family. We need to be wired for the future. We need enough computers for every student to have access. We need modern furniture for adults and children. We need heat and hot water in the restrooms. Clean, modern facilities will help to make the teacher's job easier. I am sure that would help to attract and hold many teachers to the schools located in high poverty areas.
One more thing to think about is rather than providing merit pay, re-institute social security for those of us who had careers outside of education before becoming teachers. If we want to attract mathematicians and scientists to teaching, we need to repeal the windfall act that says one cannot collect the full social security (paid into prior to teaching), nor can he/she collect full survivor's benefits when a spouse dies. Why would someone (like myself) give up all my previously earned benefits to go into teaching? I have a burning desire to make a difference. However, this is a major drawback for many.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Merit pay is not the answer. It leaves too many unintended consequences (see above).
A teacher is a teacher because he/she loves to teach -- and loves to teach students who want to learn. If you want a good teacher in a difficult school/class, improve the environment for teaching. Use the extra money to create a small school (100-200 max.) and small classes (6 to 12 students max.), provide up to date materials for self selection (appropriate books, computers, etc.), and provide a new beautiful building, classroom, desks, and a time schedule that allows students and teacher to get to know and value each other. Any teacher would love that challenge, no matter how difficult the students.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am tired of the continuing dialog that either directly blames or alludes to all of our educational problems as being caused by inadequate or complacent teachers. I sometimes wonder if any of these authors actually have day-to-day involvement and interaction with schools, teachers, students, administrators, etc.

Why the powers that be deny complicity in the failure of US education is the true travesty. Their nepotism, pet projects, often tyrannical policies, denial of responsibility, etc., are a huge part of the problem. The "how dare you" attitude has got to change before education starts turning for the better.

REAL DISCIPLINE has also got to be reinstated, regardless of cost! Teachers have to put out small fires before they escalate into large conflagrations. Whether or not those small fires be exchanged words, actions or threats should not have to be the major concern of the teachers. Those kinds of things should be addressed before those students are allowed to even enroll in school.

Consider this: A teacher spends more time trying to maintain civility in the classroom than on instruction. Why? because the system IS broken.
More money is NOT the answer. Denial by the Powers that Be is not the answer. We have addressed everything in great detail except parental involvement (and I don't mean those that come to the schools looking to fight [no wonder their kids fight]) and parental responsibility (the responsibility of a parent to raise the child as a parent and not a best-friend).

In summation: Stop blaming the teachers for everything bad that happens at school. Stop blaming the teachers for poor test scores. Research the administrations of schools, school districts, state school boards and even the failed Department of Education. Perhaps you will discover that the teachers are NOT to blame for everything wrong with education!

janofdelft's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a new teacher coming late into the profession, I find the concept of merit pay intriguing, but only mildly so. It is largely irrelevant to either my professional competence or my personal satisfaction with the job. If someone with a checkbook thinks that my job and performance are worth more money, that's fine with me. I won't turn it down.

However, I came to teaching because of two loves. I love teaching kids, and I am passionate about my subject. If I were not doing this professionally, I'd likely be volunteering somewhere that I could indulge both vices. Nevertheless, I believe that we many, we occasionally happy many, we band of cousins (my apologies to the Bard), are offered a pretty insulting wage for our talents.

I am newly certified, magic-wanded and street legal as a teacher, and my recent training has Wonged and Schlechtyd me up to the eyelids. What these and similar teachers of teachers advocate is largely the straight goods and of substantial utility. What no-one has prepared me to do, however, is manage a classroom that is populated with juvenile criminals and students whose lifetime of acculturation sets us in an adversary relationship before they even enter my classroom. Are you suggesting merit pay for competency in a classroom like this? Too often it seems that the ability to teach devolves merely into the ability to get recalcitrant students to sit down and shut up. On those days I am not thinking, "It sure would be nice if I got paid more for this," but rather, "This is not worth all the money in the world." Given a choice between merit pay and spending the same money effectively on reducing the hassle between my students' values and attitudes and me (or between the school administration and me), guess which I'd pick.

The point is this: I work for both love and money, and it seems that we teachers get inadequate rations of both.

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