Mention merit pay in education or “pay for performance” and you will spark a lively, or contentious, debate among teachers.
The idea that teachers should be compensated for their students’ achievement levels is nothing new, but some schools are experimenting with pay for performance, and President Obama said that teachers should be paid much more – but only if they deserve it.
And how does one know if teachers “deserve” merit pay in education? Based on standardized testing scores, which, some would argue, are not a reflection of a teacher’s ability in the classroom at all? Or on some form of teacher evaluation?
Five elementary schools in Utah are part of a pilot program that will give teachers merit pay in education based on “quality of instruction, students’ academic progress and parent, student or community satisfaction.” Forty percent of a given teacher’s merit pay would be based on student progress (measured by test results), forty percent on instructional quality, and twenty percent on parent, student, and/or community satisfaction. A charter school in New York will offer a starting salary of $125,000, with $25,000 bonuses for “school-wide performance.” Dozens of states are following through with merit pay in education, mostly in the form of bonuses for boosting student performance.
What to Base Merit Pay On
While many teachers could accept the idea of merit pay in education, the sticking point seems to be basing it on standardized testing scores. There are a variety of factors that influence test scores, from quality of sleep to parental involvement to outside anxiety, which a teacher cannot control. Professor Dan Willingham of the University of Virginia says, “Merit pay can’t work until there’s a way to measure teacher performance that’s fair.” And basing it on test scores, he and other experts agree, is not statistically sound.
Dealing with Current Evaluation System
On the other hand, the current teacher evaluation system is not much of a system at all. Very few districts have an organized evaluation system, and most schools do “drive by” evaluations featuring untrained administrators with checklists. A report conducted by Educational Research Strategies for the Philadelphia school district stated, “We have not seen evidence…that teacher’s evaluations are used to provide detailed metrics on a teacher’s performance needs, beyond the summary score of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.” And that is true of many districts.
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A more comprehensive and unified evaluation program would help reward and motivate good teachers, as well as draw qualified new teachers to the field. There are various evaluation models that are based on factors other than test scores. A program began in Toledo, Ohio in 1981 made use of trained veteran teachers who observed their peers. The system, which relies on early intervention, culls ten percent of new teachers and under performing veterans. In another program, this one in South Carolina, teachers are evaluated at least three times annually. Evaluators are mentors, master teachers, and administrators who develop standards-based rubrics for performance. Teachers are given prompt feedback and coaching.
A vast majority of teachers work tirelessly to ensure their students have the best education; it is these teachers who should be rewarded with merit pay in education. Test scores, however, are an unreliable indicator of teacher performance. A more realistic view of what goes on in the classroom is needed if merit pay in education is going to work, and work effectively and fairly.