As I was driving between schools yesterday, I caught a bit of a radio conversation between a right-wing radio host, and the president of the British Columbia Teacher’s Federation. They were discussing merit pay. The host was using the usual argument that we need to get rid of the bad teachers. The Teacher’s Union person was using all the usual defenses. What measure could we use? No research shows it is effective. It was kind of an awkward interview.
Supporters of merit pay argue that it is a fair way to reward those teachers who excel, while pushing out those who struggle. One thing they never seem to talk about is how much reward to give our best teachers. Will they be paid better than they are currently? Is it worth $100 000 a year for a brilliant classroom teacher? $200 000? As I see it, there are two major flaws with a merit pay system, and I never hear anyone discussing either one.
The first flaw I see in a system like this is the mistaken assumption that rewarding good teaching will somehow inspire the mediocre and bad teachers to become better. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, explains that this is just not true. Rewards and incentives work well for simple, rote and algorithmic tasks. He demonstrates that in situations requiring cognitive skill and creativity, a larger reward leads to poorer performance. I hope that teaching is considered something requiring cognitive skill and creativity. I hope it is not our intention to turn teaching into something rote and algorithmic. Pink goes on to state that what does motivate people is autonomy, mastery and purpose. Merit pay won’t develop any of these things.
My own thoughts on this flaw are that even if there is a financial reward to be a better teacher, our mediocre and bad teachers won’t be able to reach it. It’s not like these people are deliberately doing a bad job. Even our worst teachers go to work thinking that they are good at what they do. They work hard, but often in counterproductive ways. I have never met a teacher who goes to work thinking, “I hate kids and I’m going to do everything I can today to make their lives miserable and ensure that they don’t learn anything.” I honestly do not believe that a teacher exists who goes to work thinking he is just putting in time and beating the system for a good salary. Even the ones who appear to be putting in a minimum effort are still planning, marking, stressing over management and doing all the things our good teachers do. Offering them a financial reward to improve isn’t going to help them improve, because they believe they are already doing everything they can. They believe they are doing a good job. We have to educate these teachers, not punish them.
The second big problem I see with merit pay is the idea that we will weed out all the bad teachers. Because I’m a math teacher, and I like symmetry, let’s assume that 10% of our teachers are fantastic, teacher-of-the-year type people. I hope this number is low. Let’s assume that another 10% of our teachers are not performing very well at all. I hope this number is high. Most of us fit into the 80% that is left over; teachers who are performing adequately. If merit pay works as advertised, the bottom 10% will quit teaching, and many of us in the 80% group will be inspired to do better.
Here’s the problem with that theory. If we weed out 10% of our teachers, we need to replace them. In Alberta, there are roughly 35 000 full and part-time teachers. If we use merit pay to weed out our worst 10%, we need to find 3500 people to replace them. Are there 3500 teachers in Alberta looking for work who are better than the ones we are going to get rid of?
I believe we need to support our struggling teachers. A monetary carrot is not going to make them better. If it makes them leave the profession, we may or may not be able to replace them with a better teacher. Let’s put coaching supports in place for our struggling teachers. Let’s tap into the expertise of our best teachers, giving them purpose. Let’s help our struggling teachers attain mastery. We all want our kids to have the best teacher in the school, so let’s work to make everybody better. Merit pay will not make anybody better.