Merit or demerit?

Fixing the Money Pipeline

There are some teachers who are just better than others. In many ways, with many people, many colleagues. No secret really, observed many times. So why should they (not) be paid more?

There are many cases of (failed) merit pay schemes for teachers around the world. They pretty much show that merit pay for teachers, based fundamentally on extrinsic rewards for, in most cases, intrinsically rewarding job of a teacher as a ‘service to public’ … simply does not work. So why should we pay teachers differently, ‘on merit’ then?

Volumes have been written on this topic from the opposite ‘camps’. Can we have both (sounds like a politician’s wet dream)?

For the record, I would not dismiss the idea of rewarding good teachers. Let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. But if we as a society (or rather our elected representatives we always deserve) think teachers will ‘lift their game’ so they can get paid a few bucks more – very few will do so and not necessarily in the neat accounting brackets either (“extra 10% in pay will result in 10% better student results” – oh, come on!).

Here is a late night cobble of few ideas on how we could perhaps keep the baby in and change the water. Just ideas, with all their faults and crazy options…

  • Build and reward positive interdependence and pay for success of the team. Good teachers do it in class and often when a group effort is called for. The synergy of a well thought-out team will outweigh any individual scheme anytime plus have a range of positive side-effects. The one that first springs to mind is the growth of a culture of innovation and collaboration in a workplace. Of course, the trick is in the leadership, getting it right and spreading the rewards (the equity or equality argument) but if we can do it with students – why not with teachers too?
  • Pay a decent base rate pay, then pay extra amounts to those who mentor and/or support colleagues (particularly those in need). Young or old, regardless of years spent teaching. In other words – pay more to leaders, not merely non-leavers. While excellence and experience are often related, there are some very important differences between the two and they definitely should not be used interchangeably by default (when found, will link to an excellent paper I had come across on this … 😛 ). Some teachers will do it (mostly) for the money, most will do it for passion, interest, recognition … and maybe a little extra cash will be nice, yes.
  • Every 3 to 5 years, give teachers a few months to upskill, mentor, study, research, publish etc with less pressure of the constant class-related rush… a ‘classroom sabbatical’, not a holiday. Getting out of class sometimes, even if for a couple of terms to recharge and refresh batteries would surely be well received. This would be an opportunity to get a better, deeper outlook on things and, importantly, (re)discover the value of learning and the business we are in. Are you thinking ‘retention of teaching workforce’? I am.
  • Re-brand ‘teacher’ as a learning professional. Make the university undergraduate course very challenging, including lots of practical work and forms of ‘internships’, but knowing that once declared ‘a teacher’ (or learning professional or whatever the title), the person would have a set of skills, knowledge and flexibility to work in virtually any environment that requires (re)learning. This would include theories and approaches to learning, communication skills, use of technology and similar. The up and coming Gen X (often dubbed the ‘options generation’) as power-brokers and the subsequent “Gens” would certainly appreciate the range of options available.
  • I don’t know about you but some of the best teachers in my life were not even remotely teachers by profession! Let’s involve the community. It is amazing how many passionate, talented and keen people in the community are able and willing to contribute, help and (mostly unknowingly) inspire. And many of these people who could teach parts (or the whole) and work with students on something they and/or the students are passionate about probably live in the community just around the corner from where the kids live and school is placed in.. Sounds crazy? Ask Dave Eggers (one of the best TED talks I have seen!) and his Once upon a school project.

How does this sound to you? Any others you can think of or expand on? Feel free to (comment) …

12 thoughts on “Merit or demerit?”

  1. Merit pay is just another way to avoid paying teachers well. All the merit pay in the world will not attract people to the profession. I agree with you, pay teachers well and then offer incentives or merit pay for above and beyond such as, extra curricular, leadership, and national board certification etc.
    In a capitalistic country such as this, your worth and respect is determined by wealth/salary. Our profession will never garner the respect it deserves without that. I’m not happy to recognize this, but that is the way it is.

  2. I would like to first say that I agree with you and also with the fact that this is a needed discussion for educators. Merit pay does not make a teacher in need of counseling and professional development any better. It could be used however to reward those educators who can train others in best practices.
    Additionally, we can not leave out administrators. Many of them are also in need of counseling and professional development. Teachers on a faculty can be the most talented in the country, but if they are being held back by an administrator who in his or her leadership style inhibits collaboration, innovation and a team approach to teaching all is lost.
    Do not throw the money at favorite teachers. Use it for those who can teach their best practices to teachers and administrators both. That would be money well spent.
    We do not need a tip jar in the front of the classroom.It lessens us as professionals.

  3. @ Tom Whitby

    Very salient point about administrators Tom, thank you. The vision needs to be shared or the hierarchy suffocates a healthy vision. It often happens with best intentions yet simply because the administrators don’t know better (well, some don’t want to..but that’s another story).

    BTW, I may not read your every tweet but I have certainly read a fair share to realise your ideas and passions. Keep up the good work & thanks again.

  4. I think this debate is such an important one because the rate of change for our profession is so great… far more then it was for people entering the professional a decade or so ago. I think we need positive incentives to encourage teachers to be better at what they do. I have working in several schools where the only incentive for me to improve as a professional are for intrinsic reasons and that I want the best for my students. I don’t know what the answer is… but I do know that if we want to prepare our students to be creative, flexible, collobarative (and any other buzz word we can think of)… we need to reward teachers for striving to take on these characteristics themselves. We need to keep this debate on the agenda.

  5. Well said; especially the response re. administrators.

    As a teacher AND an engineer, I would like to see educators trained to THINK, not just to DO. They do what admin tells them, what the district mandates … but I have noticed that they cannot think independently (outside the box) and thus, cannot solve problems as engineers do.

    E.g. my district is a failing district and all those educators working in the district do is throw crap at the problem and hope something sticks. In effect, they are repeating an experiment BUT expecting different results (Einstein).

    I agree with your application of merit pay. If money is to be a reward, then it should be rewarded to the TEAM effort. Otherwise the system will be corrupted by the most popular or outspoken teachers. I have seen a lot of those who APPEAR to do a lot but, in reality, they accomplish very little.

  6. @David

    Thanks David for your comments – I am replying to the three here…

    Love your pragmatism, you clearly teach!

    The fact that teachers are not recognised (your comment to Edu-panacea post) is not isolated to USA, we certainly experience it here in Australia too. But teacher recognition alone is not going to make the whole enterprise necesary better (it will make our life easier sure and quite likely improve a thing or two for the kids – happy teacher is a better teacher). What I think will really turn things to a more humane, clever, intutive and creative way for both kids & teachers is examination of our concept of school. Not as an institution, but as a way of thinking, a concept so ubiqutous and so good at what it was designed to do all those years ago – see ). It is something I have been thinking very deeply and slowly coming to terms with its complexity. Will post when I arrange my thoughts in a coherent form and invite you to comment, I’d be very interested.

    From a fellow teacher – thanks again David & best wishes with your teaching.


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