Does Merit Pay for Individual Teachers Align With the PLC Concept? Part I
The idea of merit pay for individual teachers has been touted as a way to improve student achievement. One state, for example, proposed a merit-pay system that would designate up to 25 percent of teachers in a district for a 5 percent merit-pay bonus on the basis of student achievement on the state assessments.
Let’s examine the rationale behind this proposal for merit pay.
- Teachers are the key to improving student achievement.
- Teachers are motivated by money and will work harder at improving student achievement if they are provided with the possibility of financial gain and the recognition that accompanies it.
- If too many people are given this recognition it will diminish its impact and therefore no longer serve as a motivator. Therefore, merit pay must be limited to a select few.
- We can determine the teachers who are most effective on the basis of a single test on a single day.
- Because teaching is an isolated activity it is legitimate to award individual teachers who work independently of one another.
I agree with the first assumption, but I disagree with the next four. It is counter-intuitive to argue that someone who has entered the profession of education is motivated primarily by money. It is illogical that someone who is not motivated to do his or her best for students for $50,000 will suddenly be inspired to go above and beyond the call of duty for the one in four chance to make $52,500. It is not plausible that a system designed to ensure that 75 percent of its members will fail each year promotes organizational success. Most of all, we have a century of evidence that demonstrates merit pay for teachers does not improve student achievement.
In The Knowing-Doing Gap, organizational theorists Pfeffer and Sutton use merit pay for teachers as a classic example of people continuing to promote proposals that have repeatedly been shown to fail an illustration of the gap between what we know and what we do. As they write:
You don’t have to read the evidence from literally decades of research to spot the problems with merit pay for schoolteachers. That evidence shows that merit-pay plans seldom last longer than five years and that merit pay consistently fails to improve student performance. The very logic of merit pay for teachers suggests that it won’t do what it is intended to do (p. 23).
They go on to demonstrate that organizations that create zero-sum games where in order for some of us to win others of us must lose, create internal competition that discourages cooperation and mutual assistance and works against organizational effectiveness. A competitive culture makes the sharing of information and the mutual development of skills very unlikely because it is so counter to individual self-interest. An organization that expects people to share information, learn from each other, and work collaboratively to enhance overall performance will not rely on a system of internal competition that actually discourages those behaviors.
Over 25 years ago, Peters and Waterman considered the impact of reward systems on organizational performance in their book In Search of Excellence. They discovered that organizations that established reward systems to ensure lots of losers (for example, 75 percent of you will lose) were consistently low performers. As they said, if year after year a few people are winners and everyone else is a loser, eventually the losers start to act like losers.
Of course, there are logistical obstacles to merit pay. How will counselors, art teachers, special education teachers, and teachers of noncore curriculum be included if performance on the state test is an important variable? There is also the issue of defining "top performing." If I teach in a high SES school where students excel on the state test but demonstrate little growth during the year, am I a high performer? If I help my low SES students show two years of growth but they fall short on the state test, am I top performer?
But those are logistical obstacles. There are two bigger problems. First, it works against the interdependence, mutual accountability, and collaboration essential to professional learning communities that represent best practice in our profession. Why would I, as an individual teacher, share my effective strategies with colleagues if by doing so I risk no longer standing out as exemplary and thus will no longer qualify for merit pay? Why would I help students in another classroom become proficient if by doing so I am taking money out of my own pocket? If I am motivated by money, I will hoard my most effective practices and hope for dismal performances from my colleagues. The second problem with merit pay goes beyond philosophy or sharing of opinions: we have decades of research and evidence demonstrating that it will not help more students learn.
A school that claims to value the big ideas of the PLC concept, a commitment to higher levels of learning for all students, a collaborative culture and collective effort to support that learning, and the transparency of results essential to improved professional practice, will recognize that merit pay runs counter to everything they say they value.
Finally, here is my prediction for the states that adopt merit pay for teachers: The next time the state has a budget crisis, the merit-pay plan will be abolished as too costly in light of its failure to improve student achievement. Politicians will blame teachers and teacher unions for the failure of merit-pay programs and will accept no responsibility for pursuing a feckless strategy that has been repeatedly proven to be ineffective in promoting higher levels of learning for all students.