The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "Merit Pay Debate Needs New Thinking" by The Detroit News, 10/21/99.

Original Title:
A Conversation on Merit Pay
by Barry McGhan

Like the nightly rise of a vampire from its grave, merit pay will continue to plague teacher contract negotiations in Michigan and elsewhere until someone puts a stake through its heart with new thinking from both sides. Below is the kind of conversation that might move the discussion ahead.

Superintendent: We want a merit pay system for teachers. It will motivate them to improve their teaching, and that will improve student achievement.

Union: We know that some teachers are more competent than others, and it might be good if their pay reflected those differences. But, you're talking about changing a secure 50 year-old salary structure. By the way, what about merit pay for other employees, including you? Also, we doubt that merit pay will be that much of a motivator. Even if it is, connecting teacher performance to student achievement is tricky. More than 30 years of research says family income is the greatest determiner of student achievement.

S: Effective Schools research as far back as the ‘70's, and newer programs like Success For All, show that schools can make a difference. We must turn things around. Our parents and taxpayers expect no less. If we don't start making a difference, it strengthens the case for vouchers, which none of us want. Why don't you think merit pay is a good motivator?

U: The literature on management practices–from gurus like Peters, Deming, and Drucker–is all about decentralizing organizations, empowering workers, horizontal management, vision, etc. Merit pay is way down on their lists of ways to improve employee performance–and they're not even talking about schools. Still, let's talk about the details of your plan.

S: Great! I'm convinced that it can make some improvements in teacher performance. I realize this kind of proposal will seem like a big change to teachers, so we'll phase it in over several years. I propose a building-level merit pay system. It's too complicated to develop a merit pay system that rewards teachers for their individual accomplishments. Besides, the best research on achievement is based on whole-school performance. Under this system, the whole school staff--not just teachers--would benefit if student achievement goes up. What do you think?

U: You're smart to avoid individual merit pay. We've got a list of concerns as long as your arm about that approach. But, we still have a problem with what building-level merit pay will be based on. If you use state tests, they only apply to some students and teachers. Those folks carry the load for the whole school. Commercial tests have somewhat the same problem, plus, they aren't coordinated with the district curriculum. If you use grades, or attendance, you might get some administrators and teachers doing inappropriate things. There are other problems to work out, too. For example, if you compare a school's performance only to itself from year to year, how do you decide how much improvement to expect? Will it be different for different schools--or different later than at the beginning? Will you take mitigating factors, like changing the principal or losing a key teacher, into account?

S: I didn't say this would be easy, we'll have to negotiate all these problems. But the public and the school board will appreciate the fact that we're not just doing the same old thing.

U: For us, control is the biggest issue. Students aren't just sitting around waiting to be filled up with knowledge. Some are disruptive. They miss school, or they may not be paying attention when they're there. They may not have been properly prepared by their previous teachers, and so on. If a teacher has control over her teaching situation she can often overcome these kinds of problems. That control includes getting cooperation from all the school's teachers, parents, building and district administrators, even the secretaries and janitors. It's hard to believe merit pay per school is magically going to make all these other people do their jobs. This could just be a way to create a convenient scapegoat for future failures. We're going to be suspicious of your motives unless we see some real improvements in the control that teachers need.

S: Look, this is about more than just superficial change. I understand what you're saying about how complicated it is. You're talking about making major changes in the ways schools are run in order to get merit pay to work effectively. So let's talk. But let's set a deadline to start making the first changes, too.

U: We're willing to work until we have something reasonable. But this school system is not going to look the same as it has. There must be some concrete action to put the classroom at the center of everyone's efforts, without all the hypocritical malarkey we've seen in the past.

S: Let's get to work.


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