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Some thoughts on merit pay

Posted: March 11, 2011 9:03 a.m.
Updated: March 14, 2011 5:00 a.m.

I’ve been doing this work for almost 36 years. Having been around public education for that long, I’ve seen just about every solution to increasing student academic performance that has ever been thought up, usually more than once. In the case of merit pay, this is about the third time around for me. Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said. Legislation pending in the South Carolina General Assembly would freeze teacher salaries at current levels and require State Superintendent of Education Dr. Mick Zais to have a merit pay plan ready to present to legislators in December. At the federal level, both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have made merit pay one of their signature education reforms. 

On the surface, merit pay makes a great deal of sense. The idea of rewarding teachers for performance seems intuitively fairer and more productive than the traditional way of compensating teachers, which is based on experience, degrees and certifications such as National Board Certification. Over the years, I’ve listened time and again to the rationale as to why this approach should work. Unfortunately, the track record hasn’t lived up to the hype. The overwhelming majority of plans that have been implemented over the past 30 years have ultimately been abandoned. 

As recently as this past September, a study by Vanderbilt University concluded that merit-based bonuses did not raise student achievement, as measured by standardized tests. (We could have a long discussion as to whether standardized tests are an accurate measure of achievement, but we’ll save that one for another time.) The study looked at 5th through 8th grade math teachers in the metropolitan Nashville area public schools over a period of three years, from 2007-2009. Teachers could receive between $5,000 and $15,000 per year, based on how their students performed on standardized tests. The money, however, didn’t result in a significant difference in academic growth. 

If merit pay is going to be seriously considered in South Carolina, here are some points that need to be a part of the discussion:

• If done right, merit pay will actually cost more in the long run.  (A plan that was implemented in Denver, Colorado, required a $25 million property tax increase to implement.) The worst mistake that could be made is to structure a merit pay plan that limits the number of people who can earn it because of inadequate funding. Doing so would severely damage the kind of collegiality and cooperation that are hallmarks of any good school. Would teachers continue to freely share ideas and strategies with each other if they were pitted against each other for the same dollars? I’m not sure that a school where this does not occur is the kind of school parents want. Teaching children is different than making widgets. 

• An effective merit pay plan should focus on multiple measures of teacher effectiveness and not simply on standardized tests. Aside from the fact that standardized tests aren’t a completely dependable measure of teacher effectiveness, the performance of many teachers -- those in the arts, teachers of severely disabled students or media specialists for example -- cannot be measured by these tests. A plan that does focus on multiple measures, however, will require more administrative manpower to implement, which will also have additional cost.

• Pay in and of itself is not the single motivating factor for teachers. Certainly, fair pay is an important part of the equation, but so are professional development opportunities, reasonable class sizes, good facilities and access to technology and supportive leadership. If a merit pay plan is being viewed by our state leaders as a single solution to improve teacher motivation and quality and improve student achievement, it will fall short of the mark as other plans before it have. There are multiple areas other than pay that must also receive attention and support. 

An alternative approach to traditional merit pay may be one that rewards schoolwide performance rather than individual. I hope that this idea might be considered because it would recognize all members of a school staff, including instructional assistants and other support personnel, and acknowledge that excellent schools are not just the result of individual effort, but more importantly, collective effort. I have worked in and with many schools, and the very best ones were the ones where the staff saw itself as a team and functioned that way.

If South Carolina is going to pursue merit pay, it should use the opportunity to do it right rather than recycling approaches from the past that haven’t worked all that well. I hope any group that might be convened by the State Superintendent to develop a proposal will utilize the best minds and thinking from both the private sector and education, including teachers. Teaching children is different than producing or selling widgets. I’m not sure that someone who has not taught in a K-12 classroom fully understands this. A process that is not thorough and thoughtful and diverse in terms of those involved will not result in a product that will move us forward.  

I’m always pleased to talk with community members about this topic or anything else concerning our schools. My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my e-mail is frank.morgan@kcsdschools.net.  Citizens can also contact me through the “Ask the Super” link on the homepage of the district website. I also invite folks to read my “blog” and listen to the podcast I record after each school board meeting with meeting highlights. Both of these, and a whole lot more, can be accessed at www.kershaw.k12.sc.us.

 

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