Pro & Con: Should good schoolteachers be rewarded with merit pay?

By Cassandra Gaul

Education in America has been ailing for some time now, and most — parents, teachers, students and administrators — seek a quick and easy fix that most resembles the status quo. While there is a broad spectrum of suggestions, nothing fulminates criticism and nay-saying like the phrase "merit-based pay." The strong and valid arguments against the change should be used not to prevent it but to perfect it.

Merit-based pay for teachers is a necessary step toward improving our education system. Teacher accountability would ensure our schools are filled with the best teachers, not through a systematic purging, but through isolating weakness and perfecting methods. Only through a standard evaluation can we mark improvement.

How do you measure merit? When applied to education, the simplest and most common answer is test scores.

We are a testing culture, and in addition to the familiar SAT, ACT, IOWA, CogAT, GED, GRE, LSAT and MCAT, Georgia has benchmark tests for grades one through eight called the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, or CRCT.

The very legitimate fear is that these tests are a way not to hold teachers "accountable," but for students to hold the teachers "hostage." But this doesn't need to be the case.

Measuring a teacher's merit should be multifaceted and over a stretch of time. In other professions, management evaluations are common and objective.

Why should education be any different? So, too, when teachers are evaluated well why shouldn't they be rewarded like professionals in other occupations?

Gwinnett County already has developed a system to evaluate teachers based on objectives over time by different supervisors.

Although some fear that principals would play favorites, merit-based pay would make that less likely. They would be paid on merit as well, which would be measured by the success of their teachers and students.

For standardized tests to accurately access a teacher's merit, we need to look at student improvement between tests. A simple pre-test/post-test model is an easy, but dysfunctional, solution. Because teachers, being logical and reasonable, do not give pre-tests for a grade, students are not motivated to do their best.

Furthermore, if merit is based on improvement from pre-test to post-test, there is a legitimate temptation to sandbag the pre-test. A system that continually marks end of the year progress is the best solution. While establishing merit pay will be difficult, it is not impossible, and teachers will quickly reap the benefits.

Teachers give tests not to "catch" or "trick" students, but to evaluate whether the students have grasped the material. So, too, merit-based pay is an opportunity for teachers to showcase their strengths and identify weaknesses. A mentor system would strengthen all involved, even the master teachers who would be compensated for assisting promising teachers.

There are countless teachers who come in early, stay late, lead student clubs and encourage student excellence who are never recognized on a school, county or statewide level.

Although schools offer local awards and Teacher of the Year recognizes a few wonderful teachers, many teachers remain unrecognized outside their classrooms and schools. These teachers deserve to be rewarded for their dedication in ways that matter.

For far too long teachers have been the objects of suspicion by parents and the media.

"Ineffective teachers" have become the scapegoat for anything from failing grades to a growing achievement gap.

Merit-based pay would establish a standard method of evaluating teachers that would be accepted by parents and principals alike.

With this system in place, teachers will be freed from suspicion.

Then, only after such a system is in place, can we together look at how much responsibility remains for the student and parent.

Cassandra Gaul lives in Grayson and has taught middle school in Gwinnett County Public Schools.

NO: Teachers should not be bribed into doing a better job.

By Walt Gardner

Once considered the third rail of education reform, merit pay for teachers is undergoing a reassessment in the wake of President Barack Obama's support before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Congress in March.

With consensus building that teachers are the single most important factor in student achievement, why shouldn't excellence be rewarded? The answer is that it should, but the challenge is how to do it fairly.

It's here that the issue becomes exceedingly difficult to understand for those who have never taught in public schools. They assume that practices used in business will automatically transfer to schools. This belief was given a boost by philanthropist Eli Broad's recent statement that he "could not think of any other profession that does not have any rewards for excellence." In light of these developments, it's time to take a closer look at why the issue is not nearly as straightforward as it initially appears.

To begin with, public schools are required by law to enroll all who show up at their door, regardless of their desire or their ability to learn. In contrast, applicants for jobs in business have to convince their employer that they possess the motivation and skills to do the job advertised, or they don't get hired in the first place. And if they later fail to measure up, they can be fired.

This is the antithesis of the situation in the classroom. Nevertheless, in today's accountability movement, teachers are expected to bring all their students up to proficiency. To do this, reformers insist that teachers be judged strictly by reliance on standardized test scores, since they are supposed to provide objective evidence of learning in the same way profits serve as the objective benchmark of success in business.

This argument has great intuitive appeal, but the truth is that performance pay in business is not nearly as common as is widely believed. A systematic analysis of pay-for-performance practices in the private sector by Scott J. Adams, James S. Heywood and Richard Rothstein was published in May. What they found in "Teachers, Performance Pay, and Accountability" is that while periodic bonuses are relatively common, they represent a very small proportion of overall compensation, and are generally not explicitly linked to simple measures of output, either on an individual or group basis. Formulaic payments based on individual productivity are rare, especially among professionals.

Moreover, when performance reviews — the equivalent of teacher evaluations — are used, they don't work as intended. They destroy morale, kill teamwork and hurt the bottom line, according to Samuel A. Culbert, professor of management at the UCLA Anderson School of Business. In "Get Rid of the Performance Review!," published in The Wall Street Journal, he argued that these practices are destined for failure because the boss is thinking about skill limitations, while the subordinate is interested in negotiating pay.

Culbert went on to argue that the notion of pay as a function of performance is bogus. It is primarily determined by market forces, with most jobs placed in a pay range before an employee's hiring. He maintained that the idea of an objective evaluation is preposterous. Pleasing the boss, he wrote, is more important than doing a good job.

But what is hardest of all for taxpayers to comprehend is that teachers simply are not motivated by the same factors that shape behavior in the private sector. Money pales next to the inner satisfaction that comes from being able to teach the way they were trained to do.

Texas quietly disbanded its four-year plan in May after getting disappointing results on its $100-million-a-year investment in what was the nation's largest merit pay program. Its failure was the result of the cynical assumption that teachers are either lazy, incompetent or indifferent but can be bribed to do a better job.

If reformers want to reward excellence in teaching, they need to disabuse themselves of the notion that cash in the form of merit pay is the best way to do so.

Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.

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