Teachers, parents, and administrators have discussed merit pay for many years. Supporters want to establish merit pay systems instead of systems that pay based on seniority and college credits. So far, none has caught on at the national level. Recently the merit pay debate is in the spotlight again, as President Barack Obama and other political leaders are speaking out in support of it.
Merit pay is a form of compensation to reward teachers performing at high levels. Some forms of compensation could be advancement on the salary schedule, bonuses, or incentive pay. The main problem with merit pay is the criteria used to decide if a teacher is performing at a high level. In the past, administrators based teacher effectiveness on such things as knowledge of course material, classroom management, professional growth, instructional strategies, lesson plans, and professionalism. Many of the proposed merit pay systems proposed today involve the use of student performance to determine compensation. For many proposed plans, student achievement on standardized tests determines teacher pay.
Problems arise with a merit pay system based on standardized test scores. Scores can be unreliable. Basing a teacher’s salary on the tests could encourage cheating. This type of system favors teachers in higher performing schools, often located in wealthier neighborhoods. Teachers working at schools with a majority of low-income students, minimal at-home support, and high residential mobility are at a disadvantage. The teachers at the low-income schools may be better teachers, even though the standardized test scores could be lower than the schools in the wealthier areas.
Little Rock, Arkansas has a merit pay system in place in five schools. The Achievement Challenge Pilot Project allows teachers to earn up to $11,000 of bonus pay based on students’ test performance. The University of Arkansas did research on the project and found that students benefitted academically.
On the other hand, the Urban Institute also did research and found that although there may be some initial positive results attributed to merit pay, they are not long lasting. They found little evidence showing merit pay improved teacher performance or student achievement.
Many people believe that merit pay will motivate teachers and give them the incentive to work harder and teach better. Others think it will cause competition among teachers rather than fostering the cooperation needed for school improvement. Sharing is an important part of the teaching profession. Teachers mentor each other, discuss teaching strategies, share lesson plans, collaborate on how to deal with difficult students and parents, and provide a support system for each other. Teachers competing for merit pay could negatively influence that sense of sharing and collaboration.
President Obama has said teachers’ performance should determine their pay, not some arbitrary tests. He supports legislation that would increase federal funding to help set up performance pay programs in schools. Together with the National Education Association (NEA), he wants to develop a new system for evaluating teacher performance.
Kaplin, S. (2009, November 10). United Federation of Teachers: the teachers’ union. Retrieved from http://stuyspectator.com/2009/11/10/united-federation-of-teachers-the-teachers%E2%80%99-union/
Debate: merit pay for teachers. (2010, May 10). Retrieved from http://debatepedia.idebate.org/en/index.php/Debate:_Merit_pay_for_teachers