Merit pay for teachers

by Rob Horning

7 June 2010


Matt Yglesias is confused at why merit-based compensation schemes for teachers are seen as “teacher bashing”.

That said, nobody I know who advocates for paying teachers based on demonstrated efficacy rather than simply based on experience is interesting in “bashing” teachers. If anything, it’s the reverse and union opponents of these proposals tend to traffic in arguments that are ultimately contrary to the interests of the profession. After all, the whole point of what reformers are saying is that teacher quality is very important to educational outcomes and the long-term trajectory of students’ lives.

Paying teachers more in general seems like a fine idea. But merit pay “bashes teachers” by crowding out the sort of incentives required for effective teaching (selfless devotion, thankless dedication, a willingness to be the human face of an institution that many people see as not good enough for their precious offspring, etc.) with the financial incentive. My experience with teaching was that no amount of money would make it worthwhile, absent those other humanistic incentives. But merit pay sends the message that teachers should be motivated by money, not by some nebulous conjunction of good will and meeting students needs and so on.

The point of merit pay seems to be to improve the “productivity” of teachers, even though that sort of metric makes no sense for something so elusively qualitative. Students aren’t parts that teachers assemble on the line. Education doesn’t manufacture skills-enriched people; if anything, the “product” of education is a relationship between the student and teacher, which is extremely contingent on context and can have any number of difference valences. (I didn’t learn much about how to write or think from my AP English class, but I did come away with very valuable lessons in how not to be pretentious by using the teacher as a negative example.)

So “demonstrated efficacy” with regard to these relationships is a very hard thing to pin down. Is it a matter of students’ performance on standardized tests? Then you are asking teachers to surrender their idiosyncratic praxis and autonomy over their methods and materials for cash—you are asking them to sell themselves out, for a test that functions more or less to limit what kids learn rather than open them up to the process of learning, of becoming engaged, curious about the world, capable of finding ways in which they can make a difference. Is it a matter of student evaluations? Then you are undermining the teachers’ authority in the classroom, making them servants to student’s whims—essentially entertainers rather than educators. And you are putting teachers in a position where they have (a degrading) incentive to shop for the most tractable and capable students, and only the worst (or most impossibly idealistic) teachers will consent to teach the most difficult-to-reach students.

Merit pay reminds me of how Gawker pays its writers by how much traffic their posts draw—which has the effect not of improving their writing but of driving the level of discourse down to what is popular and easy. Here’s how Maureen Tkacik summed up her experience at Gawker:

Organizationally, Gawker could not have been a purer embodiment of nothing-based dystopia at work in the media. For most of my time there, bloggers earned bonuses that were tied to the page views their posts received, so the leisurely three minutes required to download a haggard image of Amy Winehouse from a celebrity photo agency and post it with a five-word caption was rewarded as generously as the frenzied hour and a half spent compiling the daily roundup of celebrity gossip, and at least twice as generously as anything I actually wanted to spend an hour and a half writing about. Beyond that, awarding page-view bonuses clearly encouraged bloggers to fight over tips and news items that fell into the realm of “obvious traffic getters,” and discouraged us from collaborating in any effort more substantial than the odd round of company-subsidized drinks.

Merit pay does something similarly demoralizing and trivializing to the teaching corps. The satisfaction of teaching is not about outcomes; it’s about the process. Compensation schemes are ultimately about getting teachers to surrender autonomy for money.

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