September 4th, 2008
Merit Pay

If there’s one thing almost everyone can agree on when it comes to education, it’s the importance of great teachers. What few seem to agree on, however, is how to best compensate them.

While the idea of paying teachers for their performance might sound simple, the concept is rife with controversy. What if principals who dole out bonuses play favorites? What if one teacher is unable to raise test scores because of disciplinary issues in the classroom, while another – without major classroom challenges – raises them easily? And should merit pay be given to individual teachers and administrators, or to schools as a whole?

There are no easy answers, which is why teachers and their unions, for the most part, have long opposed merit pay – instead supporting the standard compensation model used by the majority of public schools. This “single salary” plan differentiates pay on concrete measures of success, like classroom experience and/or degrees held.

“If you think of merit pay as basing salary on a single test on a single day or a single evaluation from your principal, or another administrator, then I think a lot of teachers will think that’s not fair,” says John Wilson, Executive Director of the National Education Association.

Still, a growing number of schools nationwide are beginning to experiment with merit pay – some with the cooperation of local unions. And the Department of Education is behind the push, awarding approximately 40 federal grants to schools that have incentive pay plans. Private groups, like the Milken Family Foundation (which created TAP – Teacher Incentive Program) are also supporting merit pay plans across the country.

Both of the 2008 Presidential candidates back merit-pay. Sen. McCain has said he supports the use of federal dollars for merit-pay programs. And Sen. Barack Obama recently made headlines when he endorsed the concept in front of the National Education Association. “The most controversial aspect of any discussion of teacher compensation is merit pay,” Obama said, adding: “What I want to do is work with teachers, and where we can work with teachers to come up with ways to set those kinds of professional standards… But I’m not going to do it to you; I’m going to do it with you.”

If there’s any sticking point when it comes to merit pay – it’s the question of how to define and evaluate good teachers? And will more money draw the best out of the profession? The questions remain.


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