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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 who 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.
  • The use of such extrinsic inducements often reduces intrinsic motivation.
  • 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.  

For more on why merit pay for teachers is a profoundly bad idea, check out Larry Ferlazzo's blog. Here are all of the posts I've written about merit pay:

The failure of merit pay

The continuing folly of merit pay

Merit Pay and Privatization

Alberta Teachers Association Opposes Merit Pay

Canadian Teachers' Federation speaks out against merit pay

The ignorance of merit pay

The Folly of Merit Pay

Merit Pay video

Dan Pink on merit pay

Merit Pay: a 123 year old bad idea

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Joe Bower

Joe Bower teaches in Alberta, Canada.