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Thomas J. West Music

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Why Merit Pay For Teachers Doesn't Work

Posted on March 16, 2011 at 7:49 PM

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Recently, I have written several articles on the challenges public education is currently facing with reform efforts. It is very obvious that new approaches to old practices are vital. Teachers Unions need to protect teachers' rights without corrupting the system. Public schools need to become more flexible and right-brained in how they do business. Alternative methods for holding professional teachers accountable for their work must be explored. One of those alternative methods is Merit Pay.

The Basics Of Merit Pay And Bonuses

Merit Pay is an economic incentive program that has gained much traction with the current education reform movement. In basic terms, teachers are awarded a bonus to their salary based on their performance in the classroom, typically measured using a combination of live observations by department heads, grade level coordinators, or administrators and a system of record-keeping for teacher professional behavior.

Most schools with a merit pay system do not link the incentive to student performance, but to the professional practices of the teacher. In most applications, it is an effort to ensure that teachers are meeting minimum standards for things like answering parent emails and phone calls in a timely manner, keeping their classroom enviorment organized, interacting professionally with colleagues, and so on. Some merit pay systems also include professional development practices as part of the criteria. Teachers must provide evidence that they are pursuing graduate level credits, attending conferences, or engaging in other professional development activitites.

Why Merit Pay Seems Like A Good Idea

Merit pay seems like an improvement on the efforts made in America so far to hold teachers accountable. The high-stakes testing environment of No Child Left Behind has attempted to hold schools accountable by measuring the capabilities of students. This has been used in a punitive manner for schools; the basic premise is that failing students equals poor teaching. Anyone who has been anywhere near a public school classroom for more than two days in a row can tell you that this is not the case.

Merit pay is an attempt to hold teachers accountable by what they do, not by what their students do. This is definitely a step in the right direction. If a teacher can demonstrate that they are performing their job with professionalism, quality, and drive, why not throw them some bonus cash? Certainly a teacher who is doing the bare minimum in their job will be motivated by a bonus check, right?

Nope. Doesn't work.

My Personal Experience With Merit Pay

Now, before I get myself in trouble, let me say that I firmly support the decisions and leadership of the board of directors and administration at my school. I have never worked for a better group of people. I understand why they have created a bonus system at my charter school, and how they are using that system to help maintain a quality work force. We do not have a tenure system, so we abide by the employee policies, which include a 10% bonus each year as school budget permits.

Generally speaking, all faculty receive their bonus money each year when the funds are available. They are not always available. So, in terms of planning a family budget, that extra 10% can't be counted on. As an incentive to increase my performance as a professional, it is not effective. So far, the newest revision to the policy has made it easier for the administration to identify and create a paper trail for teachers who are falling below minimum acceptable requirements. If you gripe and complain about the way the school is run and engage in subversive action or speech, you can be dismissed for that - you certainly won't get your bonus at least. Not return parent correspondance within 24 hours? That can be a mark against you.

The merit pay system at my school does nothing to motivate me, because I am already highly motivated. Sure I'd like the extra cash, but that's not why I am exploring ways of creating more blended learning opportunitites for my students, or experimenting with a new music check-off system, or creating curricula for a new digital music composition class, or pioneering our school's Remote Access instrumental and vocal music offerings. Merit pay has nothing to do with my profound interest in collaborating for free with other innovative music teachers on pioneering online professional development opportunities using social media. I do those things because it's cutting edge, exciting, and sorely needed!

Daniel Pink On Why Economic Incentives Don't Work

I was prompted to write this article today after reading author Daniel Pink's blog post today entitled Does giving teacher bonuses improve student performance? I was introduced to Daniel Pink when I first saw this video:

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I have not read his books Drive and A Whole New Mind yet, but they are on my short list, and based on Pink's lectures and his blog, I know I will resonate strongly with them.

As Pink describes, those that are motivated to excel do so because they have a burning passion for the subject matter and will collaborate with like-minded people for free (or close to it). Research has shown that economic incentives are only effective for the most basic, lower level cognitive tasks. With teaching being both an art and a science, measuring a teachers effectiveness based on upholding the minimum standards for professional practice is certainly a "race to the bottom".

If Merit Pay Doesn't Work, What Does?

So the question begging to be asked is: "If merit pay doesn't work, what can you do to motivate teachers." There is no easy answer, but here are some ideas:

  • We need to change the way teachers are trained as undergraduate students. A four-year degree isn't enough time to give them all the skills, resources, and experience they need. How about a four-year degree followed by an internship? Teaching is the only profession I can think of where a brand new teacher on their first day has the same amount of responsibility as a 20 year veteran. Can you imagine if they did that to neurosurgeons?!?
  • How about doing away with tenure and requiring teachers to recertify every 10 years?
  • How about allowing teachers to create their own program of professional development that is personalized, but following the Danielson model? (This is already happening a lot of places, including at my school)
  • How about creating opportunities for teachers to learn to use technology and social media to enhance their practice in small, non-threatening ways?
  • How about the communities that schools serve not expecting a school district to provide 95% of their child's upbringing, including character development programs, crisis intervention, child care for student's children, and an ever-growing list of things that the family used to teach themselves? Teachers are expected to be well-versed in special education now even though most have had only the very basics on special education as part of an educational psychology course in their undergraduate coursework. Teachers are expected to find a way to teach a child no matter what is going on in their lives outside of school. And you wonder why so many teachers are cynical and bitter!

Every teacher has their own motivations for why they are in the profession. Every profession has people in it that are ineffectual and simply trying to put in their time and collect a paycheck. I believe that the best thing we can do to motivate teachers is to train them better, support them more, and treat them with the respect they deserve rather than the ire that they typically receive.

This article (c) 2011 Thomas J. West. All content on ThomasJWestMusic dot com is licensed under a Creative Contributions Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. Please contact the author before publishing on or off-line.

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