Why Merit-based Teacher Pay Is Not A Good Idea

There are several reasons, but the most important coincidentally relates to health care reform. In a recent New Yorker article Obama is supposed to have read very closely (The Cost Conundrum, June 1, 2009) Atul Gawande examines why health care providers vary so much in terms of cost and quality and why cost and quality often aren’t related. Late in the article Gawande turns to the Mayo Clinic as a model of topflight efficiency and quality.

“It’s not easy,” he (a Mayo administrator) said. But decades ago Mayo recognized that the first thing it needed to do was eliminate the financial barriers. It pooled all the money the doctors and the hospital system received and began paying everyone a salary, so that the doctors’ goal in patient care couldn’t be increasing their income. Mayo promoted leaders who focussed first on what was best for patients, and then on how to make this financially possible. No one there actually intends to do fewer expensive scans and procedures than is done elsewhere in the country. The aim is to raise quality and to help doctors and other staff members work as a team. But, almost by happenstance, the result has been lower costs. “When doctors put their heads together in a room, when they share expertise, you get more thinking and less testing,” Cortese told me.”

Here’s the public schooling parallel. “The aim is to raise quality and to help teachers and other staff members work as a team. . . . When teachers put their heads together in a room, when they share expertise, you get improved teaching and learning.”

So Arne, in your vision, will merit-based pay decisions be made on a teacher-by-teacher basis? If salary allocation is a zer0-sum game, and I’m a teacher who is excelling, why would I share my most successful materials, my most effective teaching strategies, my best insights with my colleagues? The answer, of course is, I wouldn’t. And so how will teachers who have beat a permanent retreat to their respective classrooms, create improved academic achievement?

The runner up problem is hypocrisy. Arne, is your salary merit-based? What about Obama’s? The members of Congress? District superintendents? Principals? What about the CEO’s who have seen their salaries and pensions skyrocket at the same time their company stock has fallen? What about the 80-90% of people’s who are not commission-based salespeople? If merit-based pay is so good for the goose, what about the gander?

1 thought on “Why Merit-based Teacher Pay Is Not A Good Idea

  1. I agree – it seems that merit-based pay, just as in the health care industry, is a misguided attempt to appeal to teachers’ sense of motivation as opposed to doing what’s best for the student. Really good teachers will do their best, but as a former public school teacher, I know that most quality teachers are already doing their best with available resources and a narrow curriculum — with or without merit pay. Many will also move out of public schools or low performing districts into private schools or good districts in order to guarantee their efforts will result in gains. The result? A perpetual achievement gap and unequal education for the disadvantaged.

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