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Merit Pay, Ready or Not

by Justin Baeder | @eduleadership

Diane Ravitch, whom I follow closely on Twitter and who blogs regularly at EdWeek's Bridging Differences, regularly comments on the role of Race to the Top and related legislation on the state of teacher compensation. She has become an outspoken critic of merit pay schemes:

Twitter discussion with Diane Ravitch

I appreciate Diane's advocacy on behalf of teachers, but it appears that merit pay is coming whether educators like it or not. One way or another, compensation will be linked to measures of job performance for an increasing number of educators. Given the current level of interest in and funding for merit pay, it's time for a serious national discussion about what we want merit pay to accomplish, and how we believe it will accomplish those goals.

Merit pay has several possible means of influence:

1. It could make the teaching profession appeal to a different type of person (say, those who have the kind of drive that would make them successful in sales), and thereby change the teaching population, as argued by Eric Hanushek in this Washington Post article. It's anyone's guess as to whether the people merit pay attracts to the education profession will be any better, but there are strong indications they will be brighter (see Copland, 2001).

2. It could reward excellence, which some would argue is an intrinsic good - better than compensating the mediocre equally with the excellent.

3. It could incentivize excellence, which some would argue alters educators' behavior in desirable (or undesirable) directions. The evidence so far is that this doesn't work, but there will certainly be more research on this point.

4. It can focus efforts on areas selected by policymakers - for instance, if we want science scores to rise relative to reading scores, we can tie an incentive to science scores but not to reading scores.

5. It can be offered (or increased) in high-needs schools and thereby serve as both a recruiting tool and an accountability tool.

6. It can shine a light on differences in performance, and undermine the current culture of pretend egalitarianism in education. If we know we're not all equally good at what we do, perhaps there will be more openness to learning from each other.

But we need to grapple with several serious issues in order to prevent merit pay from harming the education profession.

First, and most serious, is the risk of narrowing education to the few things that are rewarded. We might choose to pay teachers more for improving reading and math scores, but if we tie bonuses only to those areas, we're incentivizing a narrowing of the curriculum. We've seen this happen at the school and district levels under No Child Left Behind, and it would be a tragedy to repeat this mistake at the classroom level under new merit pay schemes. We must take steps to prevent narrowing.

Second, we need to come to grips with the fact that it no longer matters whether educators want merit pay. Educators are public employees, and the public is demanding merit pay, as well as more recognition (even publication) of differences in educator performance.

Third, we need to be alert to the possibility of subversion. If teachers are allowed to mask differences in performance by focusing only on whole-school gains, or distort student scores through excessive test prep, or change jobs frequently to avoid long-term data analysis, none of this will work.

Finally, merit pay schemes need to be collaboratively developed and carefully implemented. Teachers and principals need to have a say in how they are evaluated and compensated (even if it's not their preference to be paid for performance), and the plan needs to be implemented very carefully.

I'm not convinced that merit pay is a bad idea, or that it's the cure to what ails education in the US. At best, it will bring some positive change to the human capital structures in education. At worst, it's a wild-goose chase for policymakers who want easy answers and quick fixes.

It's time to think seriously about these issues and make sure the discussion isn't dominated by non-educators.

Justin Baeder (@eduleadership) is a public school principal in Seattle, Washington. He speaks and writes about principal performance and productivity, and is a doctoral student at the University of Washington in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies.

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