Merit-Based Teacher Pay Programs Gaining Support
> 6/20/2007 1:29:48 PM

Teaching is, by most accounts, an exhausting, underpaid job; it can also be one of the most personally rewarding of professions. In a field where seniority and location are often the only predictors of relative salary, assigning pay based on performance is an intriguing idea fraught with potential conflict and controversy. It has been proposed in various forms many times and rejected just as often by every major teacher's union and most of the individuals to whom it would apply. Yet, in what would seem to be a reversal of long-held conviction, some advocacy groups and national organizations have begun to lend a tentative ear to the possibility of accepting some form of merit-based pay

The concept is promising: there are unquestionably some teachers who make personal sacrifices in assuming positions and responsibilities from which others shy away, and they rarely receive the mention and compensation they surely deserve. Conversely, some teachers who barely qualify for employment in the first place see no need to invest increased time and effort with no potential for better pay in the near future. Mediocrity, in most school systems, is not sufficient cause for firing. Due to a dearth of professionals willing to work in less desirable locations and poorly performing schools, underqualified teachers usually end up working with the kids most in need. In California, for example:

Four times as many underqualified teachers taught in the lowest performing schools compared to the highest performing schools (when comparing the 2000 Academic Performance Index)

Ideally, a system that rewards well-trained, highly devoted teachers for their extra efforts would encourage a greater number of talented professionals to move toward special education, teach those with severe behavioral problems, or work in inner-city or rural schools whose students are typically less prepared for normal curriculum as well as standardized testing. Instead of accepting traditionally higher-paying positions at private institutions or public schools in more affluent districts, these teachers might be encouraged by the possibility of larger salaries in addition to their own ethical convictions. Many who go into the education field do so out of a genuine desire to improve the lives of others who desperately need the support. And "bad" teachers are not the root of our country's education problems. But the possibility of a pay raise might just add another much-needed incentive for new teachers and veterans alike to "turn it up a notch."

The largest challenge inherent in the merit-based pay system is determining exactly what constitutes "merit" and how to compensate individuals accordingly while retaining the highest possible degree of objectivity. With whom will this responsibility reside, and how, exactly, will the decisions be made? How can one accurately attribute the success of certain schools and classes to those who brought them about? Strict reliance on the personal assessments of principals and administrators is sure to devolve into charges of favoritism, nepotism, and unwarranted rewards handed out to institutional loyalists. Even if the responsible individuals do not consider any of these variables, suspicions will almost certainly arise on the part of those who believe they've been overlooked. But by-the-numbers assessments are far from perfect; a teacher's success rate cannot be measured by the test scores of the children in his or her class, even if they're weighed strictly in a rate-of-improvement capacity. The Florida Legislature attempted to pass a merit-pay policy amendment in 2006, but the proposed raises would have been awarded only to the top twenty-five percent of teachers in a given school, with those rankings based purely on class test scores; state educators understandably rejected the plan. Not all teachers work with the same students, and the way certain kids perform cannot be wholly attributed to their respective teachers. Rookies would most likely be left out of this equation in favor of veterans who, while better schooled in the ways of class maintenance, are not necessarily better teachers. And seniority, while it shouldn't overrule talent, has to count for something.

Despite good intentions on the part of concerned lawmakers, merit-based pay plans will not pass without the support of a majority of American teacher's groups, and this sentiment has to start with the individual educators themselves. Unions have traditionally rejected the concept outright, citing concerns over equal treatment for all employees. Fortunately, some groups voice interest in programs that reward those who can be credited with significant gains among their students. For the most part, the unions prefer to arrange such bonuses on a group or school-wide basis rather than elevating certain individuals above others. The idea that pay scales based on performance will encourage teachers to dedicate themselves even more completely to their craft to the benefit of the kids under their instruction is very plausible, but such a system must be designed to avoid any form of personal bias sure to dilute the purity of the concept. Exactly how that can happen is a matter for further debate.

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