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Can Policymakers Incentivize Great Teachers with $$$?


Dear Deb,

I am happy to join with you in adopting a bridging motto of “Neither guide on the side nor sage on the stage.” One of the things that brought me to admire you was your obvious passion about teaching, learning, and children. I said at the outset of our conversation that I would gladly entrust my children (who are now too old to entrust to anyone but their spouses!) and my grandchildren to your classroom.

Somehow, though, I think that teachers you admire could work within the context of a common curriculum that described the parameters of what is taught in each year, without specifying it in such detail that it cramped their creativity and freedom of action. A common curriculum, as E.D. Hirsch, Jr., has observed, need not take up more than 50 percent of the school day. And, I would add, it need not—should not!—prescribe answers to controversial issues.

But if I may change the subject, I’d like to turn to an issue that I think is of growing importance: Incentivizing education by paying people to produce higher test scores. I think of merit pay for teachers; bonuses for principals; even payments for students, all tied to student test scores. If they go up, everyone gets a reward. If they go down, no extra pay for anyone, possible sanctions for the grown-ups.

This is a way of thinking that now suffuses American public education. Just recently, Time magazine had a cover story about “how to make great teachers.” The answer, I am sorry to say, was to adopt some form of merit pay or performance pay. When I put that “solution” alongside what you wrote in your last blog about passion, relationships, community, and burning questions, it is depressing to see the contrast.

Will we really get “great teachers” by paying some more than others? What do you think?

I think that teachers should be paid more for doing more: for taking a more challenging assignment; for mentoring other teachers; for other kinds of responsibilities that call for additional effort and time. But I am troubled by the idea that annual changes in test scores (or even changes over two or three years) should determine who gets paid most. I can think of many reasons to object to this kind of “merit pay.” I suspect it will promote cheating scandals, that it will encourage teachers and principals to arrange for certain students to stay home or disappear on testing days, and that it may even encourage students to hold their teachers hostage with threats of not even trying.

My view is that education has become permeated with the language of management and business and corporate-speak. This is a verbal poison in the bloodstream of our schools.



Re. the "common curriculum," check out the 2006 Florida law which mandates that American history, "be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable." Other provisions in the bill mandate "flag education, including proper flag display and flag salute" and require educators to stress the importance of free enterprise to the U.S. economy."

Instead of talking about the common curriculum in the abstract, I think that we need to pay attention to the dilemmas teachers are facing in these conservative times. Any thoughts?

As to merit pay and such, I think you are completely right about the dangers of tying it to test scores. (My GT class just took one day of our state writing test this morning and two girls were sick as they took it. I know they did not perform at their best. It's a one day snapshot of their learning, not a complete picture.)

However, I find it frustrating that there is no real incentive for teachers to do a good job beyond their own good nature. They will not be paid differently if they are a fantastic teacher or if they are awful. As a profession, we do not recognize excellence in teachers. There needs to be a way to do so.

"My view is that education has become permeated with the language of management and business and corporate-speak. This is a verbal poison in the bloodstream of our schools."

Preaching to the choir!

The marriage of money and test scores promotes the utilitarian side of learning in an unbalanced and kind of gross way.

However, I am curious for your thoughts on projects like this:


The website reeks with the big business mentality. However, I would bet money that the school is successful. Are anti-corporate hippies justified in bashing something that significantly raises the achievement of low-income youth?

(I'm not saying that you'd necessarily bash it, or calling you an anti-corporate hippie, Diane. Just playing devil's advocate here.)

As long as merit pay is based on the percent of improvement (in students) from one year to the next, (Google: William Sanders, University of Tennessee, value added assessments) I would very much be in favor of this alternative system. From many years as a classroom teacher I often found it discouraging knowing the teacher down the hall, simply going through the motions (and sometimes not even that), was on the same salary schedule as I was – very disheartening. While I had the satisfaction of knowing I had done my best, it still went against everything one comes to appreciate about our free enterprise market (If you work hard and do a good job, or not, you will be awarded/rewarded accordingly).

Almost as important for me, these results should then be examined for best practice(s). If a teacher is doing something in their classroom that results in better student performance, wouldn’t it make sense to study their practices and, where possible, duplicate them? Administrators should function here as a safety net, to ensure improvement of instruction is the prerogative.

This does not have to be a punitive process. No one, willing to improve, should be threatened with the loss of their job. If teachers, whose students "under perform" year after year, aren't willing to change or improve their performance/methods, then they should be encouraged to leave the field. Teaching is a profession designed to meet the needs of the clientele – the students. If that is not getting done why should that individual have an entire career in the profession?

Bottom line: What teacher worth anything would not jump at the opportunity to earn additional remuneration for a job well done? As well, what parent would willingly place their child in a class where that teacher's students under perform year after year?


Everyone, teachers included, would love to earn more money. But why would anyone think that money is the primary and only element missing from a quality education?

Unfortunately, these "business solutions" to improving education have been and continue to ignore actual student learning. These ill-thought out "reforms" have and will continue to fail because there is no emphasis on the "how" in improving student learning. Just wanting student learning to improve will not make it so.

So if not these ill-advised "business" reforms, how do we improve student learning?

Erin Johnson

I for one support merit pay, but not tied to testing.


At my university, I have tenure review every year until I get tenure. This means I take all of my artifacts from the school year (student work, publications, service, syllabi, student evaluations, and some blog posts :)) and collect it in a portfolio for 3 tenured faculty members, a chair, and a dean to review.

I think we should do the same thing with teachers. When I taught I saved everything, something I learned in grad school...It would have been no problem for me to present that at the end of the year.

Teachers, parents, administrators, and even, GASP, students should be a part of this process.

A new teacher should go through it every year for the first three years before earning "tenure" which would be renewed or not every three years.

I add what is a bit of a mea culpa here at the end because I've been working in a "failing" school and there are some teachers there who do not deserve the title. For example, the "special Ed. teacher" who "teaches" "study skills" while watching soap operas...

I think universities have quite a bit to teach us about "merit pay." Where I work, merit increases are supposed to be clearly tied to a review of teaching, research and university service, and in general, faculty seem pretty comfortable with the process.

But there's a key difference from most of the K-12 proposals -- it's almost completely a peer review driven process.

The other notable feature is that its very time consuming and labor intensive.

I think it's certainly possible to build process for performance review that teachers would be comfortable with, and that might lead to a greater sense of a career path in teaching, and a sense that work at improved practice would be recognized and rewarded.

But I don't think it will be easy or inexpensive...

Is money the only thing that good teachers want?

Teachers have interests and projects that they pursue on their own. That's part of what brings them to teaching in the first place. Teachers who write plays, build radios, play in orchestras and bands, go on archeological digs, and write artificial intelligence programs--these teachers show students what learning is about over the long haul. They bring special life and insight to the classroom.

Such teachers need time outside of school. If you pay them more but ask them to give their lives to teaching, they will not be happy. They would be happier with less pay and more freedom. Of course, the ideal would be more pay and more freedom, but chances are that isn't going to happen.

People often assume that money is the best draw for teachers. How about an excellent curriculum, tranquil environment, sane schedule, substantial vacation, professional freedom, and absence of pedagogical fads (which cause a great deal of stress, in addition to being silly)? An excellent curriculum alone would attract me--but all these things together? I'd give up 20% of my salary for such conditions, and adjust my lifestyle so I could live on less money.

I'd do this because I'm a lazy teacher? Quite the opposite. I have projects of my own--writing, music, languages, reading--and need time, energy, and peace of mind for them. Also, because I love learning in its grand specificity, I salivate when I see a good curriculum.

It would be a shame if those with creative and intellectual lives had to find a job other than teaching--or go to the private schools.

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