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The Merits of Merit Pay

A former English teacher, now working for a non-profit education reform organization, examines the concept of merit pay for teachers and The Governator’s proposal to implement such a plan in California. Much of it is territory that has been covered before but he does make one major point that speaks to reforming education in general.

The problem with the governor’s proposal — as with the proposals of the two administrations before him — is that they focus only on the first ingredient: incentives. But do we honestly believe the problem with schools today is that teachers aren’t trying hard enough?

If the governor truly wants to apply private-sector standards to improving schools, let’s talk about the three other elements that make merit-based pay a fair proposition. First, access to the best ideas. The private sector calls this benchmarking. Business leaders take for granted that if you want to improve something, you start by looking at what your peers are doing. Pepsi studies Coca-Cola; Burger King scrutinizes McDonald’s. But people who work in schools rarely get this privilege. Most teachers work all day in their classrooms without the benefit of peer feedback or advice from experts in their field.

In the private sector, leading companies routinely invest in professional development. But in public education, professional development is the first thing on the chopping block when budgets get tight.

Ongoing professional development and teachers learning from the best of their colleagues would seem like no brainers in terms of improving the quality of instruction. But look at the structure of most schools in this country. Teachers have little or no time – or incentive – to observe other teachers at work and especially not outside of their building. Any training available most often occurs before or after school, usually on the teacher’s own time, and often at their own expense.

Merit pay is another of those educational reform ideas (like school choice, standardized testing, and more) that is waved by politicians and other supporters as if it was by itself a magic wand. But true educational reform will require a variety of big and small changes to the way that schools and classrooms function. And a major part of that mix must be continuing, high quality, teacher directed professional development. Without it, all other reform concepts are useless.

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1 Comment

  1. I read a really good point last year in some magazine – I forget which one, maybe NEA Today? – on this topic. Most of the debate about merit pay is talking about fairly small amounts of additional pay… not enough to make teachers take a gamble on the new system. I don’t know how much money CA is talking about… but I definitely think that if teachers are going to take on the risks and complexities involved in merit pay, it’s not going to be for $1000 a year or some piddling amount like that.

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