Monday, December 7, 2009

Thoughts on Merit Pay vs. Alternative Compensation

Educator compensation issues seem to go hand in hand with education reform discussions. Federal dollars, particularly related to innovation in grants through Race To The Top have prompted more attention than ever on ways to compensate teachers and other educators. An interesting change in language seems to be happening in many position papers, articles, and discussions. The older and narrower term "pay-for- performance" is replacing the modern, more inclusive "alternative compensation". Unfortunately, it is more than a matter of semantics.

Alternative compensation can mean any form of compensation other than pay for seniority alone (the vertical steps in the salary schedule). Alternative compensation as it currently exists is for such things as education (horizontal movement on salary schedule), professional development and special certifications such as NBC. Moreover, many teachers unions are interested in exploring other possibilities for alternative compensation through the collective bargaining process.

Pay-for-performance is a term which comes with much more baggage. Linking teacher pay directly to student performance is not new or innovative. The very first pay for performance experiments happened in the United Kingdom in the 18th Century. In the United States the flirtations with pay for performance began in the 1920s. The history of pay for performance is of failed attempts.

In spite of the heavy touting of merit pay by the big business interests (who declare themselves as stakeholders in education), it is quite uncommon for private sector professionals, particularly if the compensation is based on client outcomes. Certainly, the Chief Executive Officers of corporations have not based their own compensation on performance.

The challenges to pay for performance in education are legion, but just to name a few:
Educators are a self selected group not likely to be motivated by money. To put it another way, one has a group of people who by choice have entered a profession that has historically not compensated well. Thus one could conclude money is not a primary motivator, yet these programs seek to motivate primarily by money. Also, the concept of pay for performance assumes that educators are holding something back in their teaching, not giving 100%, and that they need a cash incentive to give that extra effort. For educators this is a ludicrous idea.

The variables between students and educators are exponentially staggering. 'I have more special education students than Mary. Mary has more students below the poverty line than Mark. Mark has several emotionally disturbed students not shared by Ann. Ann has numerous English as second language students, a challenge not seen by Ted at a magnet...on and on.' Finding a formula that is fair will require Stephen Hawking's help, but I hear he is tied up (pardon the expression) with String Theory.

New compensation plans cost money. One assumes that with new improved measurements for teacher effectiveness that almost all of the teachers will qualify for the incentives. Many of the same folks pushing for merit pay see little merit in paying taxes. From where will the sustainable funding come?

Finally, there is absolutely no data supporting the idea that pay for performance improves student learning.

Considering all the drawbacks to merit pay should not confuse the issue with the broader concept of alternative compensation. Teachers are open, within the context of collective bargaining, to opportunities for compensation that take into account qualifications beyond their experience.


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  2. Merit pay is an issue that is closely associated with charter schools and is a reiteration of the No Child Left Behind Act.

    Basically, it requires that teachers pay be based on how well their students perform on a standardized test. With the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers and staff were pressured to teach much of the class work to the standardized tests. With so much focus on the test, many other parts of knowledge building, creativity and understanding of subjects and their synthesis with other knowledge had to take a back seat. For many students, teaching to a test meant that they were not able to reach their full potential which would have been far beyond the level of the tests.

    No one wins in this situation.

    Part of the fallout also is that if a teacher's pay is based on how well their students test, many teachers will want to teach in a school where they know that the students will perform better. Those schools are, for the most part, not the minority schools.

    Some students do not perform well on standardized tests for many different reasons and yet a teacher's pay can be tied to that student's performance. High stakes testing also puts pressure and stress on the students who become burdened with the thought that they need to perform well on one test. The test becomes a focus with little opportunity to explore and have fun learning, creating and synthesizing new thoughts and ideas.

    For additional information, see: