Merit Pay

Pay-for-performance can work for people whose primary motivations are monetary. It may also work for those who do not need to work together in cooperation and collaboration to achieve a long-term goal whose sole aim is to benefit others, as teaching does. For teachers who need to be motivated by higher ideals of truth, service and justice to be truly effective, such materialistic and base selfish motives are counter-productive. I understand why and how these material incentives appeal to those making them, and why they assume that everyone else is similarly motivated. However, I believe introducing such inducements into teaching will undermine the moral integrity and efficacy of teachers, attracting self-seekers and promoters and encouraging corruption, the quickest and easiest way to profit in this arrangement.


Pay teachers a respectable wage and accord them the respect, honor and status they deserve. This will attract the best and brightest in our society to become teachers and keep them in classrooms. If they are the best, they will do their best and will not need to be manipulated or cajoled by extra pay to do their jobs. Be fair. If their jobs are more demanding, then they should be paid according to the standards of justice. If they do not do their jobs adequately, they should also be treated with justice. Find ways to fairly evaluate and compensate their work, but realize teaching is an extraordinary complex and challenging job. To imagine that superficial measures of quality, such as isolated standardized tests, that are subject to many conflated and conflicting variables and influences can fairly or accurately measure teacher success is not supported by common sense or science. If it is determined that teachers are not doing a satisfactory job, they should be fired, as our students and society should expect and deserve the very best in their teachers.


I would argue that if teachers will do a better job because they are going to be paid better, they are not living up to the high standards and calling of teaching. A good teacher should do his or her best regardless of what they are paid. Not only do I believe this is true, most teachers I know spend a fair amount of their limited salaries and free time on their improving their teaching, curriculum materials and classroom supplies to help their students. Teachers do not get rich and no one that I know of has gone into teaching to become wealthy. If they did, they should get out of teaching and go into business for themselves or work in systems whose main goal is to make money and reward those that contribute to that process. I believe any trade, craft or profession should do their work with excellence and in the spirit of service regardless of pay.


Schools and teachers are expected to do the right, wise and just thing for their students. If we do not do the right, wise and just thing for our schools and teachers, we limit their ability to accomplish this with their students. By creating conditions where schools and teachers are encouraged or forced to focus on survival, pay or their own self-interest, we work against the purposes for which they exist. According to a comprehensive review of the research, “There is also little or no evidence for the claim that teachers will be more motivated to improve student learning if teachers are evaluated or monetarily rewarded for student test score gains” (Baker, et al., 2010, p. 1).


In our public schools, it is in the public’s interest and society’s duty and responsibility to pay teachers an honest, respectable and living wage. It is right, wise and just to do so. Those countries, such as Finland and Singapore, in which students score the highest on international tests pay and respect teachers highly. When we do not operate with the principles of compassion, wisdom and justice, we have problems. When individuals, communities and institutions do not support education, we can expect problems. These problems will reverberate throughout the nation for years to come as individuals lose faith, communities fall apart, institutions fail, societies breakdown and civilizations collapse.


When we tie incentives such a merit pay to accountability measures, such as high stakes test, we have further problems. When we try to manipulate teachers with external rewards or punishments such as merit pay or testing, we undermine their internal motivation and their sense of public service and professional integrity. I will discuss these topics next.


About rodclarken

Dr. Rodney H Clarken is professor emeritus, School of Education, Northern Michigan University.
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