Merit Pay: Not So Fast, Governors!

See all posts

Kate Walsh

These days there's not an issue of this newsletter where we're not passing along to you the latest news on the merit pay front. Without a doubt, the principle that some teachers ought to get paid more than other teachers has gained political currency around the country. Increasingly, politicians - generally a pretty risk-averse group - feel confident enough to come out four-square behind merit pay, even if it means taking on the unions.

While we're certainly glad that merit pay is gaining ground as the "right" thing to do, right doesn't always make might. In other words, the groundswell of public support could quickly seep back into the cracks depending upon how we proceed from here. Merit pay could be doomed to failure if governors don't recognize the need for the careful experimentation that's needed to solve some of merit pay's most challenging dilemmas.

The truth is that structuring merit pay is really hard to do. The systems need to be both fair and hefty enough to actually impact a talented teacher's decision to stay or leave the profession. As we've seen this week in California, our collective naivete combined with unrestrained enthusiasm plays right into the hands of groups opposed to change.

The thorny problem of how best to determine a teacher's effectiveness - the basis for deciding who gets merit pay - has by no means been worked out to the degree required for wide scale adoptions by states.

-Value-added measures, while certainly promising and the most reliable option on offer, cannot really be used to measure the effectiveness of teachers who work with very young children, in high schools, and in non-tested subjects like art, music and even social studies.
-Evaluations by principals or peers, when done with care and consistency, do correlate highly with student learning gains. However, this method must overcome a long history of two major problems: poorly designed instruments and poor training of evaluators.
-Letting the teacher decide for him or herself what goals to achieve, as Denver has done, is a viable choice but not without its own challenges - both in administering a program predicated on unique goals for each teacher, and in the possibility that a teacher's goals may not align with a school's goals.

Though these problems are daunting, they must be overcome because the need to act is imperative. And while we don't know enough, we do know some things that offer useful parameters for moving forward:

1. Merit pay needs to be based on multiple factors. Merit pay should always include some measure of student achievement, but it also needs to include evaluations by school principals and senior faculty. It's neither workable nor even fair to base a teacher's entire annual salary on a one-shot test. The other side has a valid point here.
2. Merit pay bonuses must be large enough to persuade teachers to do something they might not otherwise choose to do. The $1,500 bonuses currently offered by a number of states and districts are simply inadequate.
3. Merit pay programs should acknowledge individual successes, not just school-wide successes. In other words, all teachers in the same school should not receive the same bonus. For good reasons why, see this recent study by Eric Hanushek, Steve Rivken, John Kain and Daniel O'Brien.
4. Schools must have a concrete way to help weak teachers achieve. Professional development funds ought to be directed at helping teachers gain the skills they need to qualify for bonuses.
5. States and districts must have a long-term strategy for sustaining any merit pay program. Too often teachers are promised bonuses that are short lived, ending as soon as there is a budget crunch. One idea worth pursuing is to persuade teachers in experimenting schools to give up their step increases, contributing these funds to the bonus package. Without the ability to tweak the existing uniform salary schedule, merit pay packages are unlikely to be sustained.
6. The resources needed to do merit pay right for all schools in a state do not exist. For now, it would be better to allocate resources to high-needs districts than to spread our limited resources so thin that the money isn't enough to persuade any teacher to do anything.

The teaching profession has no choice but to remedy an outmoded pay structure that is woefully insensitive to current labor force realities. And no matter how daunting the challenges ahead, there's no question that it can be done. Will it be perfectly fair? No, no system is - but the system we're saddled with now is remarkably unfair to teachers and, even more importantly, runs counter to what would work best for kids.