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Monday, Feb. 16, 2009 | As American students consistently perform at lower levels than students from other developed countries, school districts are seeking ways to improve student performance.

One solution getting serious consideration is merit pay for teachers. Although it may seem only logical that the best teachers should be paid the most, there are several factors that would make this solution impractical. Not only is there no standard for measuring teacher performance, but students needs are so variable that it would be impossible to implement merit pay fairly. Furthermore, a merit system would do nearly nothing to stem the high rate of teacher turnover because the base pay for teachers is so low. The only real solution to raise teacher performance would be to significantly raise all teachers’ salaries.

In a strict merit pay system, compensation would be proportionate with student performance, therefore providing incentives for good teachers to excel while encouraging ineffective teachers to quit. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable way to offer competitive wages. However, there is no established standard for measuring the performance of entire schools, let alone individual teachers.

Standardized tests such as those mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation lack federal guidelines, leaving it to states to determine which test to use. Furthermore, studies have shown that high-stakes testing such as this actually have a negative impact on classroom instruction.

According to Professor Linda R. Valli of the University of Maryland, “There were declines in teaching higher-order thinking, in the amount of time spent on complex assignments, and in the actual amount of high cognitive content in the curriculum. We believe these declines are related to the pressure teachers were feeling to ‘teach to the test’” (Ottalini, 2008). While tests are meant to identify good teachers, they ultimately lead to rigid, less creative instruction. Using this to determine teacher salaries would increase rote instruction and decrease analytical thinking activities which is a necessary skill in today’s world.

Any strategy for paying teachers according to merit has to be balanced against the need to attract and retain teachers in low-performing schools.

“According to projections by economist William Hussar at the National Center for Education Statistics, the nation will need to recruit an additional 2.8 million over the next eight years” (Wallis, 2008). If school boards implemented a merit pay system that teachers perceived as unfair or ineffective, the result could be the additional loss of qualified teachers. Many teachers in low-performing schools already feel that they sacrifice only to receive a disproportionate share of the blame.

Many also hold feelings of resentment toward teachers in high-performing schools in wealthy neighborhoods, who get paid just as much and receive many more perks. Quality teachers would be even more reluctant to teach in low-performing schools that need them the most if their paychecks depended on test scores. Currently, up to half of teachers in urban schools leave within five years.

The goal of improving these schools should be focused on retaining these teachers, not providing them incentives for moving to the suburbs. Furthermore, a merit-based pay system could have a negative impact on high-performing schools too.

According to Will Haase, a math teacher from a San Diego charter school, “Merit pay would create a negative feeling of competition among staff members, and teaching is a career where teamwork is key. If teachers were worried about getting a pay increase, the last thing they’d want to do is help out their fellow teachers” (W. Haase, personal communication, January 14, 2009).

Certainly, the relatively low pay that teachers receive in relation to their education is part of the problem. Furthermore, the difficulty that principals face in removing ineffective teachers adds to the problem.

“It typically takes at least two years and extensive evidence to remove a continually ineffective teacher. Some principals give up or never bother” (Alpert, 2009).

Principles, who are held accountable for the performance of their school, should have more authority to remove teachers that they feel are ineffective. Likewise, the teacher pay scale should be raised significantly across the board. This would create competition for the job itself and weed out bad teachers from the start as opposed to making teachers compete for salaries. While many would contend that this is no time to consider an increase in school budgets, we need to recognize that low pay is a primary reason that many college graduates scoff at the teaching profession. The average starting salary for an American school teacher is just over thirty thousand dollars, a ridiculous amount for a job that requires a bachelor’s degree and a professional certificate.

According to Todd Hilton, a math teacher from a Temecula High School, “Nobody becomes a teacher to get rich but they do not take a vow of poverty either. Teaching is a noble profession but it is also an important profession.” (T.Hilton, personal communication, January 12, 2009)

Raising teachers’ wages to a competitive level would draw more creative and motivated people. Furthermore, a guaranteed good salary would create a positive competition for teaching positions in which teachers would have a strong incentive to help each other and pursue professional development.

As school districts continue to look for ways to improve performance, merit pay is surely an idea that will continue to be put forward. However, without a standard measurement of teacher performance this idea remains impractical. Rather than creating the divisive atmosphere that merit pay would inevitably lead to among teachers, raising all teachers’ salaries remains the only true way to attract and keep the most talented people to the profession.?

Daniel Delgado is a senior at High Tech High International in San Diego. His essay reached the finals of the 2009 voiceofsandiego.org Essay Contest. The winner’s essay will run Friday, Feb. 20 after all other finalists have run.

Works cited:

Alpert, E. (2009, January 21). Union, School Leaders Split on How to Measure Teachers. Voice of San Diego. https://www.voiceofsandiego.org/articles/2009/01/24/education/849eval012109.txt

Ottalini, D. (2008, January 8). No Child Left Behind’s Emphasis on ‘Teaching to the Test’ Undermines Quality Teaching. University of Maryland News Desk. http://www.newsdesk.umd.edu/sociss/release.cfm?ArticleID=1576

Wallis, C. (2008, February 13). How to Make Great Teachers. Time Magazine. http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1713174-1,00.html

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