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Rethinking Pay v. Mere Merit Pay Silliness

Boy, I can't decide whether I get more frustrated by the Ravitchian charge that rethinking teacher pay is an attack on schooling or the ludicrous merit pay schemes that masquerade as reform today. My choice, when asked to pick between those two approaches, is "neither." I try to explain why that's a valid choice, and not a dodge, in my new Educational Leadership piece "Spend Money Like It Matters."

You can check the full piece out for yourself, but let me try to make this simple: Do you think that employees who are good at their work ought to be rewarded, recognized, and have the chance to step up into new opportunities and responsibilities? I do. If you're with me on this, you embrace the principle of merit pay--whether you know it or not. Because, although we all have that childhood friend or distant cousin who lives on a commune somewhere and inveighs against the evils of bourgeois materialism, most of us think it makes sense for a talented, hardworking engineer, nurse, accountant, or babysitter to be rewarded for his or her efforts.

There are two crucial provisos here. First, endorsing this principle doesn't mean signing on to the raft of slack-jawed merit pay proposals that would-be reformers have championed in recent years. Merit pay is only useful if it's done smart, which entails using it to help attract, retain, and make full use of talented educators. Second, understand that there's no proof that rewarding talented, hardworking folks "works." You can comb through decades of economics journals and issues of the Harvard Business Review without finding any proof that paying and promoting good employees yields good results. The premise just seems like a reasonable assumption; you either buy it, or you don't.

That's how I come at merit pay. I don't imagine that paying bonuses for bumps in test scores, as though we were compensating traveling encyclopedia salesmen in the 1950s, is going to improve teaching or learning. Merit pay should reward performance, value, and productivity. We can measure these in many ways--by scarcity of individuals in the labor market, annual evaluation by peers, professional observations, supervisor judgment, and so forth. The contemporary obsession with student test scores as the only metric of interest has been an unfortunate distraction. And I don't think that value-added calculations are themselves a comprehensive or reliable measure of teacher quality, even in grades where we can calculate such numbers with a reasonable degree of statistical accuracy.

The point of rethinking pay is not to bribe teachers into working harder. Rather, merit pay is a tool for redefining the contours of the profession. Today's step-and-lane pay scales, built around seniority and credits completed, suggest that the primary way to determine how much teachers are worth is how long they've been on the job and how many courses they've sat through. I don't believe that's a good or useful way to gauge a teacher's value.

I see four key takeaways from all this. First, student achievement must be an important factor, but we should employ it deliberately, with an eye to a teacher's actual instructional duties and responsibilities. Too often, we rely on test scores simply because we don't have anything else. That's not a problem specific to merit pay; that's our peculiar failure to import widely employed practices and tools from other professions.

Second, it's a mistake to imagine there's one universal way to design pay systems. Why debate about whether Google, the Red Cross, or Microsoft has the "right" compensation model? There are a slew of reasonable approaches, depending on organizational context and needs. Rather than searching for proven pay models, education leaders would be better off identifying the problems they're trying to address and asking how reconfiguring pay might help them solve those problems.

Third, the aim must be to craft systems that can evolve. The whole point of pay is to help attract and leverage talent. We need an approach that succeeds in tapping specialists, online instructors, part-time educators, and others who can best serve students. Rather than cement in place new merit pay systems predicated on improving test scores for a teacher who spends 45 minutes a day for 180 days with the same 24 students, let's design systems that can reward unconventional forms of excellence.

For instance, an online tutor who lives thousands of miles away but who can help struggling students make remarkable leaps in mastery of algebra is an invaluable asset. The same is true of a retired Army sergeant who may be ill-equipped to teach a middle school class but who may be able to inspire and mentor 15 middle school students. Today, there is little room in teacher pay scales to recognize or reward--or, sometimes, even make possible--these kinds of contributions.

Finally, today's test-based merit pay systems have nothing to say when it comes to productivity. They funnel more dollars to teachers who yield higher test scores. The reward is a bonus for past performance; it does nothing to amplify a teacher's effect on students and schools. Well-designed merit pay systems should reward teachers who choose to take up opportunities to do more good--such as instructing additional students, leveraging particular skills, or assisting colleagues--making their increased pay a pound-wise investment for their districts or schools.

This means that merit pay systems are not, as some suggest, a frilly luxury that is unaffordable in today's bleak fiscal climate. Rather, they are essential tools for designing schools and systems that can excel in tight times. Merit pay should shift dollars from employees and roles that do less good for students toward those that matter most. This will entail discomfort and disruption and require an array of compromises and adjustments. But if merit pay is to be more than a gimmick, it must be part and parcel of a push to rethink the shape of teaching and schooling.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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