Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Trouble With Merit Pay

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the National Education Association on July 2 that teacher compensation decisions should take student achievement into account.

“Test scores alone should never drive evaluation, compensation or tenure decisions,” Duncan said, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Education.  “That would never make sense.  But to remove student achievement entirely from evaluation is illogical and indefensible.”

The issue also came up when Duncan spoke at the American Federation of Teachers conference on July 13.

I’m not necessarily against the idea of compensating teachers based on performance.  One former teacher I interviewed for "The Teacher Chronicles" said she opposes the current approach to teacher compensation because it offers no financial incentive to be successful and no financial penalty for being unsuccessful.  Another teacher said she has worked with apathetic teachers who present a negative image of the teaching profession.

However, I have serious questions about the feasibility of a merit-pay system.  How exactly would it work?  Who would be responsible for evaluating teachers?  What criteria would the evaluation cover?  Who would determine teacher compensation based on the evaluation? 

While we have heard few specifics about how a merit-pay system would operate, we do know that the Obama administration believes student performance should be considered.

But a student’s academic success depends on a variety of factors.  How can we hold teachers solely accountable?  Even the most dedicated and talented teachers may be dealing with unmotivated students, uncooperative parents, or unsupportive administrators—all of which create obstacles to success.  A child’s education is a collaborative process that requires a commitment from the student, parent and teacher.  Positive and constructive communication among all three is essential. 

Another issue is that a merit-pay system cannot possibly take into account the non-academic impact teachers make on the lives of their students.  What about the teacher who helps a student overcome a debilitating lack of self-confidence? What about the teacher who mentors a rebellious teen, causing him to change his attitude toward school and his future? What about the teacher who supports a child facing a life-altering crisis, such as the death of a parent?  How do you measure the positive influence teachers have on the social, emotional and character development of their students?

While linking compensation to performance has its potential advantages, I doubt a fair and practical system for evaluating and rewarding teachers based on performance can be developed.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your thought that a fair system cannot be developed. I personally believe that NCLB was the best thing that happened to American public education, but it has had a few "unintended" consequences. One being test scores (in a singular fashion) to determine teacher merit pay. As you have stated, there are several factors that need to be used when determining the merit of a teacher. I even think parent evaluations, and student evaluations have to be used. But, as teacher merit pay relates to teaching students, why would a teacher want to teach at the low performing schools? It is a challenge to enter one of these schools and develop learners that can show proficiency on exams. Oh, use growth as a factor in merit pay? Then, is that fair to teachers that work at successful schools, where their students are scoring at the top of the scale? Several kinks need to be ironed out before this is presented to teachers.