Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Merit Pay For Teachers?

School is starting back up across the country. So now is a good time to consider the quality of America’s teachers. Reformers have been touting merit pay for teachers for some time now. Would it help?

People respond to incentives in life. One such incentive is money. If a teacher knows that he’ll make $40,000 if his students do poorly, but $100,000 if his students do well, it seems like he’d make more of an effort to ensure that his students do well. He’d put more time into developing his lesson plans and more time staying after class to help with questions. He would also have an incentive to experiment with different teaching styles in an effort to reach all the kids in his class.

Under status quo, once teachers get tenure, they are often locked on a pay scale by seniority. They can’t be fired, and they’ll get raises or stay at the same level no matter their performance

Now, many teachers are more altruistic than say an investment banker or corporate lawyer. But it is hard to believe that financial incentives couldn’t be tempting.

There is a question of fairness. Why should teachers be punished because some students come from difficult backgrounds, or don’t care about their subjects? But in every other field, people have obstacles to deal with. And in no field is just showing up enough. When Lebron James steps onto a basketball court, he can’t complain about being double-teamed, or fans waving signs while he shoots free throws. He’s held accountable for his results. If a doctor has patients die year after year, no one will come see him. He can’t say that he had perfect attendance at all his surgeries, or that some of the conditions were tough. He is judged on his results.

A serious concern is that merit pay could lead to too great of a focus on standardized tests. Teachers could have an incentive to spend all of their time helping students game tests instead of learning substantive material. But perhaps that is a reason to try and change standardized tests to reflect substantial material. For sure though, implementing merit pay could be a challenge.

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