Merit pay for teachers doesn’t work

As the leader of Georgia’s largest professional educator association, most readers may be surprised I support merit pay for teachers that recognizes their performance as determined by their local school and district. What I cannot support is a mandated merit pay system tied to standardized test scores, as proposed by Gov. Nathan Deal and his Education Reform Commission. Nor can I support merit pay disguised as a method of reducing the state base salary for teachers so that the merit pay portion is necessary to make up the difference.

According to ERC recommendations, educator pay will be based on student test scores through merit pay systems that all Georgia school districts must adopt or design. Clearly, Gov. Deal believes educators — individually and collectively — are withholding their best effort and therefore need financial incentives to prod them toward improvement. A cursory review of research conducted over the past 30 years from highly regarded universities, foundations and consortiums clearly shows merit pay is fraught with design, implementation and sustainability problems.

A full discussion of the issues with merit pay in education isn’t possible in this column, so I’ll mention just four:

• Compensation design for merit pay is complicated even in school districts when teachers, administrators and school board are committed to its success. A good merit pay system is founded on a base salary that is accepted by employees as sufficient; therefore, any additional pay truly is for demonstrable superior performance. A good merit pay system is transparent in that the reasons for increased pay are clearly understood by all employees. Additionally, employees must be able to control the opportunity for increased pay, and it must be equally available to all. Student achievement does not meet these criteria because it is a product of many inputs. Teachers are an important input — but only one. It’s too simplistic to believe a standardized test on one day can adequately prove the value of a single teacher’s contribution to a student’s learning over the course of a year in an environment where many educators interact with that student.

• Teaching is a collaborative process that requires cooperation, support and teamwork for the benefit of students. Pay-based incentives for student achievement create competition — either subtle or overt — among colleagues. Unfortunately, we’ve seen too clearly in Georgia the result of the temptation to manipulate testing to achieve higher scores.

• The cost-to-benefit ratio is too high to implement the infrastructure to adequately support a statewide merit pay system. Research repeatedly bears out that quantifiable gains are difficult to attribute to merit pay, and that the organizational effort required to design, implement and support these compensation models outweighs the benefit.

• The overemphasis on standardized test scores and teacher evaluation over the past few years has caused educators to feel more disconnected from students. Students should not be numbers on an answer sheet.

Georgia educators have reason to distrust that the governor and the General Assembly will follow through on promises to improve educator compensation or sustain funding for merit pay. The list of broken promises related to teacher pay is long. It includes supplements for National Board certification, stagnant salary schedules, and sustained deep austerity cuts that have forced local districts to cut work days. Even now, the promise that veteran teachers will continue on the current salary schedule based on training and experience doesn’t hold up. All but two Georgia districts will be charter or waiver systems next year and can design their own compensation models regardless of ERC recommendations.

Georgia’s 1.7 million students deserve to learn from educators committed to their academic progress, their development as critical thinkers and their ability to pursue creative expression, rather than focus on standardized test scores and how those scores will affect their evaluations and pay.

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Dr. Allene Magill is executive director of the 90,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators.