Merit pay is common practice in the business world to reward specific, pre-determined performance achievements. As defined by the Department of Labor, merit pay is also known as performance based pay, where a pay increase is based on a specific set of criteria established by the employer. It is determined by having a conversation with the employee on their performance over a specific time period. It might be in the form of a bonus or additional sum to a base salary, or it be the only way to get a raise. In theory it is an incentive to perform at a higher level. The success of this process rests with the control the employee has over his/her situation, the reality of the performance goals, the competence and consistency of the supervisor, and most of all if the "merit incentives" are meaningful.
The evaluative criteria might be solely established by the employer, or be mutually agreed upon between the employer and the employee. Given the latter situation, this could take the form of employee performance goals, acquiring new knowledge and skills, improving efficiency, or the quality of their results of the work they are doing/creating. Employees who have a say in what criteria is established and some control over their work situation, will have greater ownership in this process and feel more accepting of the process. In the business world there is greater control over the components that make up the products, therefore, theoretically leading to a better product. While businesses differ in terms of their purpose and focus, but most are still looking at the increasing the "numbers."
Why is this different for education? First of all, teachers are not against being rewarded for doing quality work or improving their performance. However, the art and science of school is not as easily controlled as it is in a manufacturing company or business setting. As a result, the "numbers" often used in education to determine the quality of one's performance (specifically targeted for teachers) have traditionally equated to a heavy emphasis on student test scores. These test scores are not produced in a controlled environment because so many variables come into play in terms of the students that enter a classroom on any given day. In a merit pay system for educators as it is typically proposed, teachers are "rewarded" for the performance of their students based on a specific set of indicators, that almost always include high stakes test scores as the biggest chunk of the pie.
But relying on 5-18 year old kids to determine my value as an educator is tenuous at best. Kids are kids. Some days they are spot on; they get it; they are engaged in meaningful learning. Some days they are tired from staying up too late; anxious from listening to their parents fight; or hungry for food or attention. Sometimes they care. Sometimes they need you to care. I am no different. My lessons can be the best ever, but if students are in a "bad place" in their life that day, the lesson doesn't stick. Conversely, some days students learn in spite of my lesson or my mood. In reality, some of my best work as a teacher is not reflected in a great test score. It may have resulted in the improvement of a student's knowledge or skills, but more often it resulted in the building of a relationship, instilling confidence, or making this student feel like he or she mattered.
One Size Doesn't Fit All. Education is made up of people teaching and learning. They bring many skills, behaviors, experiences, attitudes and areas of expertise to the learning environment. There is no checklist, magic bullet, or set prescription to achieve the desired learning for every student, although there are many research based programs and strategies that are proven to be effective. Just as there are many ways to do most jobs, there are many strategies that can be used to teach the same knowledge or skill. In fact, every student in a classroom could have a different learning need that must be addressed by the teacher.
If a principal walked into my classroom and didn't have much knowledge of my content area (a common issue), how would they know my instruction was effective? While they can look for certain kinds of strategies, classroom management routines, and observe how students respond, they really have no way to determine if that particular lesson is effective in terms of what students can know and do today or tomorrow. And often, the evaluation rests in the eyes of the beholder so to speak as they project their own preferences and biases into their determination of what effective looks like.
Another point of consideration is that not everyone teaches the same subject (content area). Some content areas and grade levels have high stakes tests associated with them; so do not. All are important to developing the well-rounded education of our children. Beyond the instruction of content, it is also important to consider how one measures the soft skills that are required to reach the students in order to teach the students. So much to measure, so few ways to do it equitably and meaningfully.
High Stakes tests of the past, and to some degree the tests of today too, expect every student to jump a similar bar of proficiency. We know not all students can do that based on their abilities, no matter how hard they try. However, if we looked at how much students IMPROVED then the idea of using a variety assessments (including test scores) to determine teacher effectiveness becomes a more palatable and realistic option to determine if an educator deserves some kind of bonus or reward.
Consider that in order for learning to stick it must be relevant and as a result, fluid. The test scores I earn today may not truly reflect just how much I learned and can (or will) use in the future. In my own experience, I have taken tests and done very well and now remember very little from that time, much less use that information. Conversely, I have not scored well on some tests and have come to understand the material more deeply at a later date and now continue to use that information in my daily life. True learning (understanding) is not found in a checklist or on a test. It is an on-going, lifelong experience of making meaningful connections, while refining and using what we know and can do. These kinds of things don't fit neatly into a performance -based formula.
Finally, I believe the most significant thing that contributes to educators' skepticism of the merits of merit pay is the fact that so many things are done TO educators instead of WITH educators. Lately the same legislators that are proposing merit pay have been using educators as scapegoats or whipping boys, tying their hands with reduced funding, and promoting the idea of school choice (where funds are diverted from public schools) insinuating that public schools (and therefore the teachers in public schools) are not worthy of public support.
No teacher supports poor teaching or mediocrity or wants either of those to be rewarded. But the reality is, until a system of incentives can be put in place that is not so subjective and not heavily based on test scores that may not truly reflect the efforts of the teacher, educators find little incentive to support merit pay. In the mean time, my advice is to talk with educators. Involve them in sharing ideas on how best to identify the actions that lead to student success. Determine what incentives they find most meaningful. You might be surprised to find out it could be something other than a bonus or boost in salary.
Education is also kind of a "team sport" if you will. We are looking to improve groups of children as well as individuals either as a part of the classroom, building, or district. We want teachers to work together for the greater good of student success, not compete for limited dollars that could distract from the mission of what's best for kids. If you believe competition improves performance, then you will have a hard time with this concept. Anyone who knows me realizes I'm a huge competitor, but there is a time to pull together to compete to get better rather than compete for an individual prize. If you focus on getting better everyday, the results will speak for themselves. Just look to Bill Snyder and what he has done with K-State Football using this same philosophy.
I can't think of a teacher who wouldn't be happy to accept a higher salary, have incentives of additional time and financial compensation for post-graduate degrees like many businesses offer their employees, along with other business-like perks. But mostly, educators would like to be respected for the professionals they are and supported for the work they do with your children every day. The reality is we are public employees. We will never be rich in monetary compensation, but we are rich in knowing we make a difference in the lives of our students. Yes, there are teachers who should be working in a different field. Yes, there are outstanding teachers who deserve to be recognized and compensated accordingly for their efforts. But the vast majority of teachers will never receive any public accolades, but to someone they are a hero or the lifeline that they so desperately need. They go to work everyday to find a way to spark learning in every student, and help those same students reach their full potential - basically to do what is best for kids.
Even Jamie Vollmer, successful ice cream businessman and author, came to the realization that you can't run a school like a business. If you haven't seen The Blueberry Story, click here.
The merit of anything is in the eye of the beholder. It is a value judgment we place on what we deem valuable or important. Let's ask educators what they think is important before we force yet another law or regulation on them regardless of our intentions. Let's restore the merit of education as a whole and those who make that system work. Every educator matters, just like every kid matters. Let teachers know you appreciate them - there's a lot of merit in that!