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cross-posted at Creating Lifelong Learners

I’m not opposed to the theoretical idea of merit pay. However, I have not read of any fair plan to address who would earn it. I have the following concerns…

Having worked with several principals, I have found that all of them tend to have favorites on staff. I would not want my pay to be determined based on how a principal personally feels about me. I also would not want my pay decided on by a single test or even multiple standardized tests that may not measure what I am teaching in class. Even though I’ve worked at low-income schools throughout my career, I have good friends who work at high performing schools and they don’t have it any easier than I do even though the pressures of working where they teach are of a different kind. I don’t think that time spent working is a fair indicator of how much a teacher should be paid since it seems to me that some teachers spend their whole summer working at school but doing little to do with instruction. Should teachers who are the most organized and spend less time working after school not get bonuses?

It seems to me that even the worst teachers want their students to do well. It’s not as if they’d teach better if only they were paid a bonus. In places where students aren’t learning it seems it’s because teachers don’t know how to do better rather than because they don’t want to do better.

Finally, in a field where we already make less than similarly educated peers in private industry, I wonder if not being able to count on a particular income would be enough to discourage promising people from entering or staying in the profession.

Your thoughts?

12 Responses to “Merit Pay for Teachers”

  1. you’ve summed up this debate so perfectly. i frequently end up in these discussions with my republican husband and his coworkers who are working on policy development. their libertarian views love the idea of merit pay and think it is the answer to “fixing education”. i have a hard time summing up my skeptism of the plan, but you’ve done a great job of hitting all of their talking points.
    thank you!

  2. mrlane says:

    Completely agree with you regarding the inherit problems with merit pay. Until teacher are in the position to “fire” their underperforming students or underprepared students, the system we have – as flawed as it may be – is as good as it’s going to get!

  3. ckirby says:

    I disagree that the current system is “as good as it’s going to get”. To believe that means to give up and stop trying. I also disagree that there aren’t ways to use standardized testing to determine the effectiveness of teachers. The problem is that a teacher would need to be in the profession for several years to be considered. By using the value-added (I believe that is what they call it) system from Tennessee, I think there is promise. Over the course of years, with many students going through your classroom, there are definitely trends that can be seen. The more students you teach, the more that outliers are negated.

    Of course, you have to teach 3-5 years to have enough data to be fair to a particular teacher. This type of system is also fair to all teachers because it is based on growth, not “passing a test,” so whether you teach in a struggling school or an affluent one, you are still expected to get growth from all students.

    The issue here is how to deal with teachers who teach subjects that are not tested. It also doesn’t take into account how to track students who go to different teachers for different subjects as young as second or third grade. But these aren’t things that are so hard to figure out that they break the whole system.

    I too agree that I think even ineffective teachers want their students to succeed, but I don’t buy the notion that all teachers are really interested in being the best teacher they can be. I have taught with WAY too many people who were “collecting a paycheck” to believe that everyone wants to be a true professional. I don’t want to judge them as people, because I don’t know their life situation and why they make those choices, but they make them nonetheless, and as a professional, I think we should do more to “cull the weeds” than we do. Until we start to hold each other accountable, we can’t really complain that others don’t see us a true profession.

  4. @ckirby,

    Your 3-5 year plan seems much more fair than most plans I’ve heard about in that it seems a bit more tied to student improvement and helps to average out the differences between individual classes. However, if the reward for a job well done comes 3-5 years after performance, I wonder if that’s too far in the future to truly motivate the behavior we’re trying to influence.

    While I think most people agree that there are some “weeds” among the profession, I believe them to be in the minority and I think we tend to focus on those few truly bad teachers instead of focusing on the larger (broken) system which wins out over most of the individuals within it regardless of their intentions.

  5. Elisa says:

    The inherent problem with the ‘culling of the weeds’ via test scores (even trend data) is that, as a school, we should want all of our students to succeed. At our school, if we have a teacher who is not up to snuff, many teachers will step up to the plate to ensure that those kids get the same education as students in another class. Having a weaker teacher does not necessarily translate to lower test scores when the school is a collaboratively working environment. In that case, that teacher would continue to collect their bonus on the backs of the other teachers.

  6. ckirby says:

    I don’t necessarily think we need to fire people based on test scores – I was only talking about one way to include standardized scores in an evaluation process. I don’t necessarily think it should be the only criteria, but it certainly can be a part of the equation.

    As for getting sub-standard teachers out of the profession, why would we as professionals defend others who are taking up space and bringing us down when they are incredibly incompetent? Say what you will, but there are some really incompetent teachers in our systems, and I for one am not going to defend them. Do I try to help out for the sake of their students when I’m near one? Of course, to the extent that I can. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not also going to work and voice my opinion to administration that this person shouldn’t be teaching the next year.

    Lest you think me callous let me clarify a few points. First, I don’t think there is one right way to teach or one way that reaches all students, however, there are several wrong ways to do it. Second, there is a difference between having a bad/off year (stuff happens in life) and not being smart enough to teach. If you cannot grasp the underlying principles of what you are teaching, you should not be in the classroom. Again, that doesn’t mean you know everything on day one, but there is a difference between a knowledge gap and IQ. Third, if you do not like kids and/or you think good management means yelling at kids and controlling their every movement then you shouldn’t be teaching.

    Of course these are just my opinions, but I for one am sick of the idea that we should defend all teachers for fear that one day someone might target us. If you are really doing your job, you don’t truly have to worry – even if someone somewhere targets you, you will have no problem finding another job if you are truly a good teacher.

    I’m also curious of Elisa’s position. You seem to be more worried that a bad teacher might earn a bonus off of his/her colleagues pitching in to help out than you are about the fact that you are forced to do someone else’s job because he/she is not doing it.

  7. Maybe I have just worked at wonderful schools but I have never known a teacher who was just collecting a paycheck. However, I do know a few (but just a few) teachers who “are not smart enough to teach”. We need to raise standards for the profession from the front end so that qualified teachers are entering the classrooms before we need to evaluate them. Raising standards will also create more respect for the profession, which will lead more people to consider teaching. I went to a college that was dead set against being a “teaching school” and had many, many classmates say, “why are you here if you are just going to be a teacher?” Too many colleges like mine (the “almost ivies”) have a culture where teaching is considered a disrespected field.

    I also think that the Praxis test is too easy and think it is interesting that you can just continue to retake it until you pass. It is only there to look as though we are raising standards in teaching, but we have lowered the bar enough so that the standards are in name only.

    I completely agree with ckirby’s second to last paragraph, but know that while in theory I agree, I still am very unsettled by the idea of being targeted even when I am working hard and achieving.

  8. I’ve worked at five schools and I haven’t met a teacher who was “incredibly incompetent.” I don’t doubt they exist but I haven’t met them (what I do see is teachers who continue to teach as they’ve always taught whether or not their methods are still working). It begs the question why aren’t administrators doing their jobs to go through the process of supporting and then firing those teachers? I don’t think merit pay is the answer to that problem. We need better oversight. While ckirby might blame teachers for not policing their own, I think the blame rests with the people who get paid to be administrators and whose job it is to evaluate employees.

  9. ckirby says:

    I agree with Matthew’s comment about administration. As for “incredible incompetence” I put people in that category too liberally at times, but I use that term in referring to those who do a lot of worksheets, don’t change their methods, blame the kids for being low ( i.e. saying things like “I can’t be expected to fix them – they are too low), and basically show up, talk at kids all day, make kids sit still for hours at a time, etc. If you give kids a bunch of worksheets and assignments and expect them to sit on their own and work alone all day – I call that incompetent teaching – and I’ve seen a lot of it.

  10. Tom Kaun says:

    Interesting opinion piece in our local paper
    only teachers determine merit pay but quite complicated and where’s the time do do the evaluation?
    also what about non-classroom teachers, e.g. librarians and counselors?

  11. Mathew says:


    When you talk about things like worksheets, talking at kids, and making kids sit for hours—and I agree that these are problems with education—I think you’re talking about problems with our system of education more so than particular individuals. It’s much easier for new teachers to find mentors with worksheets than mentors who employ project based learning.

    Why don’t we focus our discussion on improving this system which is flawed and outdated? I’m not defending incompetent teachers but focusing on them as THE problem with education, I think, is a dead end.

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