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
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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 comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

rachel horwitz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I already get merit pay from the state for compleating a paper based on my work with students. I submitted an even longer paper for more merit pay from a national organization. Merit pay systems exist. I would love to see money spent on new buildings and bigger classrooms with fewer students in each. My school is 50 years old and we can't update it fast enough. Everyone in my school needs new furniture: new desks, new chairs, new bookcases and more electrical outlets. The lockers are rusty, the windows leak and so does the roof. Infrastructure is the key. My school is full of wonderful teachers and good support staff. No one wants to talk about the lives my students lead outside of school, but that is another discussion.

M Schroeder's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It would be very difficult to establish from student test scores who is a good teacher. NCLB has proven this over the last five years. How can powers that be say that this can happen when they don't even agree on and now want to change the model for evaluating students? How about getting something right before throwing another monkey wrench into the works? Find out if the new "growth model" form of evaluation of students has merit before trying to apply the failed system created in original NCLB to another population.
For Rep. Miller to get angry with teachers union reps who are trying to understand and influence the process of instituting reform of bad law is understandable. What union Pres. Reg Weaver doesn't understand is the political process ,whereby politicians need to appear to be leading by passing laws, any law, quickly, before lobbyists and narrow constituencies get ramped up to attach and change. We reap the whirlwind of unintended consequences, eg Iraq fiasco.

Dan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach at an ISD and have more credentials that the local high school teachers. I wouldn't see any of the money because I am not involved in the testing. But I sure do see all of the students with IEP's and those that are at risk, the one's the locals don't want. How is this suppose to play out?

Dan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What are you thoughts on a "One room schoolhouse" atmosphere for K-6??


Leonard Isenberg's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Like the military which offers the equivalent of merit pay in signing bonuses to meet its recruiting numbers,public education is now experiencing the same problem of keeping well-qualified teachers and proposes the same short-sighted solution.

In both cases there is an underlying and very relevant issue that is not being addressed: In Iraq it is an unpopular war based on deception and in public education it is not addressing unacceptable student behavior for fear of losing Average Daily Attendance compensation from the state and federal government.

One need only look at highly successful public schools to know that outrageous student conduct is not an issue, because it is not tolerated. While merit pay would be nice for a teacher like myself who has 20 years of experience and is at the top of the salary scale (nearly $80,000 and great medical benefits for 9 months work), I must confess that money is not my major concern. Rather it is an educational environment that must be present if I ever hope to succeed in teaching.

At present edspeak platitudes take the place of this substantive environment. Within 5 years, 50% of idealistic inner city teachers, throw in the towel and decide to do something else where they will not get punished for doing the right thing.

A former IPS teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I spent the last nine years as a teacher in the Indianapolis Public School System. I left this year. When I left I took a pay and benifits cut. No amount of money would have kept me at IPS. I could no longer be a part of the way the system allows students to be physically, mentally, and emotionally harmed.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond argues that the best incentive pay plans will use multiple measures to evaluate teacher performance and create career ladders capable of supporting and rewarding all teachers. She recently gave high marks to a report by the TeacherSolutions team of 18 outstanding teachers titled "Performance-Pay for Teachers: Designing a System That Students Deserve." It proposes a nuanced approach to teacher compensation that respects the complexities of teachers' work and would promote teaching quality, collaboration and leadership. It deserves the attention of all teachers who are committed to building a true profession. You can find the report at the website of the Teacher Leaders Network.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Maybe your trouble was your lack of spelling ablility.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

While I agree that in general teachers are not the problem. We must also realise that there are teachers out there who have a minimum standard that is far too low. They are people who are in a safe job where they work the minimum hours required by contract. These are the teachers that government and society choose to see. As long as tenure, unions, and contracts protect these complacent teachers, teachers will continue to receive the lions share of the blame. And if merit pay helps get these unmotivated teachers to do more than so be it. Teachers who are passionate about teaching know that it isn't the money that keeps us going.

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