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Issue Clash: Merit Pay

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association and Gary Ritter, associate professor of Education and Public Policy and holder of the Endowed Chair in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, debate the issue of teacher merit pay as an effective approach for reforming the education system.

Rebuttals from each guest can be found at the bottom of each response.

Is "merit pay" a fair way to assess teacher competency?


Gary Ritter: Merit pay is attractive to policymakers precisely because of the unfairness embedded in current teacher compensation policies, which pay teachers simply for time served and degrees earned rather than for their ability to foster student learning. The problem is that there is little evidence that these factors make for better teachers. Alternatively, merit pay represents a promising strategy for rewarding and encouraging teacher effectiveness. As a discipline, we do have reasonably good tools to assess the "merit" of a teacher; we should use these tools. While it may not be perfectly fair, a pay system based on merit is certainly more equitable than the status quo, which discourages talented teachers and shortchanges students.

Dennis Van Roekel: The first question you must ask is what is meant by "merit pay?" If it means paying for test scores, then NEA does not support it. NEA does support creative alternatives and enhancements that build on a strong salary schedule with a $40,000 base salary. The key question for any compensation system is whether it is designed to improve teaching and learning or advance short-term political goals.


Gary Ritter: In each state across the nation, educators and policymakers have gotten together to develop learning standards for students. Testing experts have joined in to develop standardized assessments aligned to these standards so that educators, policymakers, and parents can gauge student progress. Student performance on these assessments serves as an excellent indicator of student learning; student gains on these assessments provide a good measure of the teacher's contribution to student learning. Thus, merit pay would most certainly mean providing rewards for teachers who are effective at fostering improvements on these exams. In this way, a merit-based compensation system is designed to encourage and reward good teaching—just as the NEA suggests. Indeed, it remains puzzling to me that the NEA continues to support the unjust uniform pay scale and oppose the common-sense idea that the best teachers be rewarded for doing a great job.

Dennis Van Roekel: Research consistently shows that knowledge and experience are the key factors that determine teacher quality. Teaching is a professional practice; it requires great diagnostic and delivery skills, and ongoing professional development, to promote learning in every student. As such, NEA supports additional pay for teachers who gain additional skills or take on new responsibilities, such as gaining National Board Certification, engaging in high-quality professional learning, and mentoring new teachers. These things actually DO improve a teachers' practice, which in turn, drives student achievement. Above all, teacher pay systems should be developed collaboratively by teachers and administrators.

What effect does a merit pay system have on the full school faculty, especially on those un-rewarded?


Gary Ritter: Critics of merit pay are often concerned that such plans cannot adequately incorporate teachers of "non-core" subjects. The most effective merit pay plans ensure that all teachers are eligible for rewards so as to organize the entire faculty around the school's ultimate objective of enhancing student learning. There are a variety of ways to assess the "merit" of teachers of subjects such as technology and art; one reasonable approach is to give these teachers credit for school-wide learning gains. Other faculty may go "un-rewarded" because their students do not show learning gains. At the end of the day, these teachers will either improve their performance or choose to pursue another profession. Either outcome will benefit the students.

Dennis Van Roekel: We must focus on improving the practice of the profession of teaching and create pay systems designed to do so by linking them to quality professional development. Merit pay systems force teachers to compete, rather than cooperate. They create a disincentive for teachers to share information and teaching techniques. This is especially true because there is always a limited pool of money for merit pay.

It may also result in a decrease in the number of teachers who volunteer to teach basic or remedial subjects as those teachers opt to teach more rigorous courses with students who have already demonstrated excellence in a particular subject area. For example, I taught high school math. With merit pay there would be no incentive for me to teach Basic Math, but every incentive to teach Calculus. I'm a pretty good math teacher and I know I could help the kids in Basic Math, but I also know that there is a greater chance that my Calculus students will score higher on a standardized test.

Systems that tie a teacher's salary to how well students perform on standardized tests are not in the best interest of students. The motives may be good, but in reality, it doesn't improve student performance. But we know what does work: smaller class sizes, highly qualified and certified teachers, up to date textbooks, and technology. These are the types of improvements we should be making.


Gary Ritter: The NEA is correct to point out the obvious: it is possible to devise "bad" merit pay schemes. However, the NEA is absolutely wrong to assert that all merit pay programs are designed this way. Indeed, there are numerous good programs across the country, and Mr. Van Roekel must realize this. In good merit pay programs, often designed by educators, teachers do not compete against each other but instead are measured against their own improvement goals. Our Arkansas programs are designed this way. All teachers who meet their objectives can earn the maximum reward. In fact, teachers in our merit pay schools are rewarded for the improvement in their own classrooms and for the gains of students throughout the school. Thus, teacher bonuses are enhanced—not limited—by the good work of their peers throughout the school. Mr. Van Roekel also wrongly claims that he would be incentivized by merit pay to teach calculus. When merit is based on learning gains, teachers of all students can earn rewards, as long as they nurture student improvement. Indeed, Mr. Van Roekel might prefer to teach basic-level students in our merit system since these students have the most room for growth. An example of a merit pay plan, developed by educators, that highlights the flaws in the NEA argument, is posted here. [pdf]

Dennis Van Roekel: All teachers, as well as other school professionals, should have the opportunity to grow and learn professionally. If their "worth" is determined by the results of others, they are denied the opportunity for professional learning. So-called merit pay systems force teachers to compete, rather than cooperate, thereby creating a disincentive for teachers to share information and teaching techniques. NEA is confident that as we pursue professional pay, we can promote effective pay practices and avoid those practices that appear to be politically motivated but do nothing to enhance the work life of all members and the learning of all students.

What's the best way to improve our country's public schools?


Gary Ritter: The research on elementary and secondary education points to one factor as absolutely critical to student learning: the quality of the classroom teacher. We also know that teachers, like other professionals, respond to incentives. As a result, we should design compensation policies to attract and retain the best teachers by directing our resources toward these effective teachers and away from their ineffective peers. Merit pay is one such policy. This policy is even more appealing because it can improve student learning by encouraging teachers to pay closer attention to student achievement data.

Dennis Van Roekel: NEA has created an initiative to transform America's public schools by 2020. This initiative is designed to help enhance the capacities and success of the current K-12 system, build on the strengths of the system, and serve as a catalyst for the expansion of local programs and practices that work. The initiative seeks to inspire the American "can do" spirit and put it to work in a collaborative effort to make sure that every student in America attends great public schools by 2020. The Transforming America's Public Schools Initiative asks Congress and the administration to address six priorities that focus on the needs of every student, especially low-income minorities and other student populations that need additional attention, including:

• Support the profession of teaching.
• Implement a federal guarantee to sustain funding of Title I and IDEA.
• Protect and achieve students' access to educational services and supports.
• Support state-based public school transformation.
• Establish high-quality educational research and development.
• Support innovation and best practices to accelerate state improvement efforts and improve student learning.


Gary Ritter: First, the NEA would like us to support the profession of teaching. As President Obama argued last month, treating teachers like professionals means that "good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement." If Obama is correct, the NEA could support the profession by supporting merit pay. Additionally, the NEA makes a priority of protecting student access to educational services. In fact, the antiquated uniform salary structure supported by the NEA is one of the biggest reasons that poor and minority students do not have access to the same high quality teachers that their middle class peers do. Perhaps the NEA should aim to protect students by actively advocating for differentiated teacher pay. Finally, the NEA claims to prioritize high quality research and best practices. In that light, the NEA should consider a 2008 research review published in the non-partisan Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. In this study, the authors conclude that merit pay plans are effective at improving student achievement. Paying attention to evidence would be a great start for us to improve our schools!

Dennis Van Roekel: Every student deserves a great public school and a great public school is one that is staffed with the best and brightest of our nation—those who choose teaching as a profession and commit to a career shaping the leaders of tomorrow. For policy makers, this must first begin with a commitment to paying teachers a professional salary from the moment they walk into a classroom, one that is comparable to other professions that require a similarly complex skill set. According to the Economic Policy Institute, in its recent report, The Teaching Penalty, teachers' weekly salaries are 15% lower than comparable occupations. NEA is calling for a starting salary of no less than $40,000 to ensure that top college students are drawn to teaching. Then, we must retain teachers by supporting them as they grow professionally through effective mentoring programs, providing targeted professional growth and learning opportunities, and ensuring that their compensation keeps pace with other professionals.

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