A PLC Approach to Merit Pay
The Race to the Top guidelines have sparked renewed interest in the topic of merit pay for teachers. In earlier blogs we outlined why we oppose the idea of merit pay for individual teachers because the concept is based on faulty assumptions and there is abundant evidence over decades that prove merit pay does not accomplish what it is intended to accomplish—higher levels of achievement for students. In 2006, Stanford researchers Pfeffer and Sutton reported that decades of research on merit pay for individual teachers provided consistent evidence: Merit pay plans consistently fail to improve student achievement and rarely last longer than five years. As Michael Fullan recently wrote, “There is no research that suggests widespread benefits derive from merit pay.” In fact, one recent study of merit pay for individual teachers over a seven-year period reported, “Our results consistently indicate that the increased emphasis on individual teacher performance caused a significant decline in student achievement.”
If, however, districts are committed to implement some form of merit pay, we contend that the reward should go to an entire school rather than individual teachers and should be based on evidence that the school is functioning as a high-performing professional learning community. If incentives are to be provided, they should encourage educators to work collaboratively and to take collective responsibility for student learning because that is what is most likely to impact student achievement in a positive way throughout a school.
The PLC concept has been endorsed by leading educational researchers throughout the world as the best strategy for raising student achievement across a school. In the McKinsey Group’s study (2007) of the world’s highest-performing school systems, the report concluded that those systems functioned as PLCs. The 2009 Odden and Archibald study of districts that doubled student achievement concluded those districts insisted that their schools function as PLCs. John Hattie’s (2008) comprehensive study of factors that impact student achievement concluded the best strategy for raising student achievement in a school is to have the professionals within it function as a PLC. WestEd, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, and the National Staff Development Council are just some of the organizations that have endorsed the PLC concept as our best hope for improving schools.
The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future argues, “It is time to end the practice of solo teaching in isolated classrooms. . . . Today’s teachers must transform their personal knowledge into a collectively built, widely shared, and cohesive professional knowledge base.” As the president of that organization wrote in the 2009 Phi Delta Kappan
“Quality teaching is not an individual accomplishment, it is the result of a collaborative culture that empowers teachers to team up to improve student learning beyond what any of them can achieve alone. . . . The idea that a single teacher, working alone, can know and do everything to meet the diverse learning needs of 30 students every day throughout the school year has rarely worked, and it certainly won’t meet the needs of learners in years to come.”
When Newmann and Wehlage (1995) did their comprehensive study of school effectiveness, they found there were many schools that had competent individual teachers who were unable to raise student achievement because that requires a collective effort rather than a series of isolated individual efforts. They concluded that schools that were able to raise student achievement “have more than competent individual staff: They have the organizational capacity to work collectively as a group for high-quality learning for all students. Schools that operate as strong professional learning communities contribute to student achievement and to equitable distribution of achievement.”
For decades, educational researchers have cited the traditional school culture of teachers working in isolation as one of the biggest impediments to improving schools. As Harvard’s Richard Elmore wrote, “The existing institutional structure of public education does one thing very well: It creates a normative environment that values idiosyncratic, isolated, and individualistic learning at the expense of collective learning. . . . Privacy of practice produces isolation; isolation is the enemy of improvement.” Yet merit pay for individual teachers reinforces the assumption that teachers work in isolation and that what students learn depends solely on the individual teacher. Furthermore, it actually serves to discourage collaboration, sharing of best practice, and collective responsibility, since by sharing highly effective strategies with colleagues, a teacher actually lessens the likelihood that he or she will qualify for merit pay.
If we are asking educators to use research-based strategies for improving schools, certainly incentives that encourage the entire staff of a school to function as a PLC should take precedent over incentive plans that reward individuals. By including raising student achievement as an indicator of a PLC, a district could align its program with the Race to the Top premise that evidence of student learning should be a factor in determining the effectiveness of educators.
Providing incentives for a school rather than individuals also addresses the problem of how educators outside of the core curriculum—school counselors, teachers of art, music, foreign language, physical education, etc.—can qualify for merit pay. This proposal is not without faults, but it represents a much-preferred alternative to merit pay for individual teachers.