Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Merit pay a well-intentioned bad idea

Here is one great rejoinder when the subject of merit pay for teachers comes up: just call it a "hardy perennial in the overgrown garden of well-intentioned bad ideas. "

That jewel comes from the keyboard of Philadelphia Daily News columnist Elmer Smith, whose essay questions the logic behind President Barack Obama's belief that merit pay should be a key element of education reform.

Smith is not opposed to any type of performance-based supplements. He notes that teachers in some places -specifically mentioning Denver and Cincinnati - are experimenting with contractual incentives. There are two very important distinctions between these examples and the common understanding of merit pay.

First, those examples are proceeding under the mutual understanding of collective bargaining agreements. Teachers are defining the incentives in partnership with their school boards.

Second, those incentives are not based purely on student achievement. As Smith puts it, "Fact is, nobody has ever devised a fair and equitable way to base teacher pay on student performance. Nobody. Ever."

Smith recounts several reasons why basing teacher pay on student performance is a bad idea. But the most compelling may be the unintended consequence to challenged schools.

"Even more troubling," Smith writes, "is the likelihood that teachers will opt out of the schools with the hardest-to-teach student populations."

Smith concludes his column with the observations of a teacher union president:

How do you attract good teachers to hard-to-staff schools if their pay is
based on getting the best results from the most-challenging students?

"It won't happen,'' said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President
Jerry Jordan. "The equitable distribution of qualified teachers would get a lot

I'd raise teacher pay across the board. But I'd do it in a way that would
not discourage the best teachers from taking on the toughest challenges.

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