Friday, January 11, 2013

Merit Pay: the bad idea that won't die

Alberta's Education Minister Jeff Johnson has recently been talking about merit pay for teachers.

Here are some of my thoughts on why merit pay can't and won't work:
  • Merit pay schemes require our education systems to pursue and intensify primitive forms of measurement such as standardized testing.
  • Merit pay encourages teachers who have chosen to pursue a carear for public-service to focus on extrinsic rewards such as pay. While it's true that income is important, Alberta teachers know they are paid well, so why distract their intrinsic motivation to teach children with extrinsic manipulators such as cash?
  • Merit pay is the bad idea that won't die. There is absolutely no proof to suggest that merit pay for teachers is ever anything more than a bad idea.
  • Merit pay pits teachers against one another in a competitive scheme to personally gain on the backs of children.
  • Merit pay encourages teachers to see children not as individual children of worth regardless of academic ability but as test score increasers and suppressors. Merit pay dissuades teachers from working with the hardest children to educate.
  • Merit pay is insulting because it assumes that teachers could do a better job but refuse to until it is bribed out of them.
  • Merit pay falsely assumes we agree on what good teaching and real learning looks like. While some parents can't wait to get their children into the classroom where the teacher is fixed at the front of the classroom dispensing information with lectures, worksheets, quizzes and tests, I couldn't run in the other direction fast enough. 
  • Merit pay falsely assumes that more pay will solve the problems that plague education while ignoring the real problems like working conditions and unreasonable standards and accountability.
  • Merit pay undermines teachers passion for teaching.
  • "People believe in merit pay only when they think the job is not being done." Mark Flynn
In his landmark essay on the folly of merit pay, Alfie Kohn explains:
  • Merit pay "conveniently moves accountability away from politicians and administrators, who invent and control the system, to those who actually do the work."
  • Even those teachers likely to receive a bonus realized that everyone loses—especially the
    students—when educators are set against one another in a race for artificially scarce rewards.
  • Dangling a reward in front of teachers or principals—"Here's what you'll get if things somehow improve"— does nothing to address the complex, systemic factors that are actually responsible for educational deficiencies.
  • Pay people well, pay them fairly, and then do everything possible to help them forget about money. All pay-for-performance plans, of course, violate that last precept.
  • It's an illusion to think we can specify and quantify all the components of good teaching and learning, much less establish criteria for receiving a bonus that will eliminate the perception of arbitrariness. No less an authority than the statistician-cum-quality-guru W. Edwards Deming reminded us that "the most important things we need to manage can't be measured."

  • It's possible to evaluate the quality of teaching, but it's not possible to reach consensus on a valid and reliable way to pin down the meaning of success, particularly when dollars hang in the balance.
  • Merit pay based on test scores is not only unfair but damaging, if it accelerates the exodus of teachers from troubled schools where they're most needed.
  • Merit-pay plans often include such lengthy lists of criteria and complex statistical controls that no one except their designers understand how the damn things work.
  • So how should we reward teachers? We shouldn't. They're not pets. Rather, teachers should be paid well, freed from misguided mandates, treated with respect, and provided with the support they need to help their students become increasingly proficient and enthusiastic learners.   


  1. "merit-pay plans often include such lengthy lists of criteria and complex statistical controls that no one except their designers understand how the damn things work."

    Disagree, I actually think that teachers that care would leave for greener pastures while "teachers" that figure out and game the system would soon step in to fill the void.

    Otherwise couldn't agree more!

  2. Being a teacher is hard. We don't have the support of the public (or at least not those who are vocal) and we suffer through angry comments about how we are over paid and underworked as it is. Yet what's interesting is that the public will likely be in favor of these "bonus" checks. It's a bit ironic if you ask me. But in watching and listening to the Alberta government for the past four months, I'm beginning to wonder if merit pay might be the proverbial nail in the coffin of many teacher's careers? I've seen reports that merit pay increased teacher retention in some areas in the States. What I wonder is how many good teachers did you lose first and exactly who did you manage to "retain"?

  3. Justin, you and Cherra-Lynne both make an excellent point that can't be ignored. Merit pay plans might attract and retain teachers -- the question is what kind of people are attracted to merit pay and what kinds of teachers will walk away?

    I fear that merit pay will dissuade those who are intrinsically passionate about teaching and learning and attract those who teach for profit.

  4. Joe, merit pay is not used widely in private industry outside of the corporate suites. It has been a few years since I worked in banking, but I never received merit pay or bonuses. My wife is still in private industry and she does receive annual bonuses, but they are not based on her work. They are based on the overall productivity of the whole office and/or team.

    We already have teachers leaving for greener pastures and this is a red herring approach. Merit pay, as is pointed out above, will not retain or attract teachers. I entered teaching after 15 years of successful private industry work because of the intrinsic value attached to it not because I was paid more or less. In fact, it took me several years before I matched my last year of income in banking. In the late 1980's, I made over $30, 000 per year. I am considering leaving because what I do in the classroom is not valued or appreciated by my bosses which is the same reason I left banking.

  5. The argument I always hear is, "I work ten times harder than the teacher down the hall who is waiting for retirement/mailing it in/is in good with the Principal. It is unfair that we get paid the same."

    The response that there should be support for teachers who need it and meaningful peer evaluations and a collegial environment among teachers just seems so idealistic that people's eyes glaze over.

    Merit pay makes what's complicated seem simple.