either buy it, or you don’t.
That’s how I come at merit pay. I
don’t imagine that paying bonuses for
bumps in test scores, as though we
were compensating traveling encyclopedia salesmen in the 1950s, is going
to improve teaching or learning. And
I don’t think that value-added calculations are themselves a comprehensive
or reliable measure of teacher quality,
even in grades where we can calculate
such numbers with a reasonable degree
of statistical accuracy. But money and
metrics are invaluable tools in shaping a
21st century teaching profession.
The Point of Merit Pay
The point of rethinking pay is not to
bribe teachers into working harder.
Rather, merit pay is a tool for redefining
the contours of the profession. Today’s
step-and-lane pay scales, built around
seniority and credits completed, suggest
that the primary way to determine how
much teachers are worth is how long
they’ve been on the job and how many
courses they’ve sat through. I don’t
believe that’s a good or useful way to
gauge a teacher’s value.
There’s nothing innately wrong with
step-and-lane compensation. Indeed,
when introduced in the first decades
of the 20th century, it was a sensible response to the massive gender
inequities that characterized schooling.
At that time, women were routinely
paid half as much as their male counterparts. Because male teachers were far
more prevalent in the high schools,
many districts employed de facto pay
scales in which high school teachers
dramatically outearned their K– 8 counterparts for no discernible reason. In
that era, standardizing pay made sense.
By the 1970s, however, schools could
no longer depend on a captive influx
of talent regardless of the terms of
employment. Whereas limited alternatives had meant that more than half of
women graduating from college became
teachers in mid-20th-century America,
the figure today is closer to 15 percent.
Meanwhile, new college graduates are
much less likely to stick to a job for long
stretches, the competition for college-educated talent has intensified, and
we can now more or less distinguish
teachers who excel at helping students
master important content and skills.
All this adds up to a new workforce
environment in which the step-and-lane, industrial-era model that flourished as a best practice in post–World
War II auto and steel plants is unduly
confining. Step-and-lane pay is ill-suited
to attracting and retaining talent in the
new world of career changers, scarce
talent, and heightened expectations.
Merit pay is not a substitute for high-quality instructional materials, pedagogy, or curriculum. Rather, rethinking
pay can help make employees feel
valued, make the teaching profession
more attractive to potential entrants,
and signal that professional norms
are displacing those of the industrial
model. None of this “fixes” schools,
but it does establish a firmer, more
quality-conscious basis for dramatic
As cash-strapped states and school
systems look ahead to lean years, it’s
vital to recognize that one-size-fits-all
pay is insensitive to questions of pro-
ductivity. Although the term produc-
tivity is regarded as an irritant in most
education conversations, it refers to
nothing more than how much good a
given employee can do. If one teacher
is regarded by colleagues as a far more
valued mentor than another, or if one
reading instructor helps students master
skills much more rapidly than another,
it’s axiomatic that some teachers do
more good than others do (that is, that
some are more productive than others).