A recent Florida legislature action in April to set aside money for teacher raises linked to “merit” raises the question of whether “merit pay” is really effective in improving educational outcomes for students. Will it be really “merit” or simply continuation of old evaluation practices with a few tweaks to standardized forms and new labels sprinkled on them? As the solons fine-tune the details, here are some points to consider about so-called “merit pay.” I have summarized them from well-known former AFT union negotiator, (Myron Liberman 2007).
1) School administrators don’t want merit pay because it means more grief in the form of evaluations of teachers. Negative evaluations will almost certainly be challenged and be subject to union grievances, an outcome most administrators want to avoid. Merit pay will also mean more work for administrators, and in the case of negative evaluations, will sour personal relationships between principals and their faculties. Many blame the unions for merit pay opposition, but there is substantial opposition by school bureaucrats as well. It should be noted that in states that do not have collective bargaining (teacher unionism), merit pay implementations are weak, again suggesting administrator opposition, even where there is no “union” to battle.
2) Teacher’s unions don’t want merit pay because it will mean additional scrutiny of union members, and trigger discontent within the ranks from those who feel they have been unfairly denied the extra cash. It is much less hassle to go by a seniority system.
3) Few school board want the hassles of merit pay, because the bulk of public school teachers are represented by unions that fiercely resist it. Implementing merit pay would mean renegotiating multi-year workforce contracts and trigger bruising battles with local unions, a process few school board have the stomach for.
4) Merit pay calculation formulas have several problems, especially if test scores are used as the grand measure of performance. Their use as a sole measure is fraught with instability. Yet another problem is how different subject areas are to be weighed- should high demand math and science teachers get more money, or would this be “unfair” to other teachers? Will merit money be distributed evenly among all teachers, or will those with seniority get first claim on the cash? Is seniority is the guide, then those with less seniority lose out, compared to what they would have gotten under an even distribution. Just such a scenario happened in the Los Angeles Unified School District in California, in the early 2000s.
5) Interestingly enough, in some countries that outperform the US academically, such as South Korea, or Japan, there are few significant merit pay plans for teachers. If high performers are doing well without merit pay, why should lesser ranked nations like the US undertake significant merit pay initiatives?
Given the immense structural problems of implementing merit pay, including opposition by both school bureaucrats and unions, Liberman argues that it is naive to keep betting money on this losing horse. This critique might apply to the Obama Bush administration “shoveling” money into assorted merit pay plans. If he is right, Florida’s “merit performance” plans, along with Obama’s “Race to The Top” scheme on the national level, might merely be another cosmetic exercise, that allows cash to be funneled forward. A second possibility hinted at by Lieberman is for standards to be eased by various states and/or districts depending on jurisdictional powers, allowing more students to be graded as “Proficient.” This allows additional “merit” monies to be pocketed by both districts and teachers, without some of the hassles above.
I certainly agree on the difficulty of merit formulas- from a teacher perspective- several factors contribute to student outcomes, including attendance, making rigid attempts to link pay increases to student success on state tests problematic. That being said, teacher quality as measured by student performance should be one of the factors in the evaluation mix. Teachers count, as we are often reminded by teachers themselves. The results obtained by their students need to be weighed in the balances, not merely sidelined as an irritant to continued business as usual. How much weight to apply, and the reasonableness of the scales will be interesting questions in the days ahead.
Notes: Myron Liberman, 2007. The Education Morass