Merit Pay and Teacher Autonomy


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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36 Responses

  1. Shameless plug: I wrote about teacher turnover awhile back. I don’t consider it problematic , provided school systems stop demanding teaching degrees and allow well-educated individuals in various fields to being their knowledge to students.

    I think one problem that exists is that there’s essentially no advancement path for teachers. If you want to be a teacher you will essentially be in the same poisition until you retire unless you aspire to be a principle or school system administrator at a later point. So whereas in other fields if someone is a great employee and a high-performer, they move up the ladder and get pay raises as they go. That’s not possible in school systems so raises based on years of service become the only option.

    Just thinking out loud, what if a teacher has a few great years and then gets stuck with a classroom full of morons one year. How does this factor in? If we just gave yearly bonuses instead of adjusting the pay rate, that would allow each year to stand alone…however it’s a bit weird that the student’s performance determines if Mrs. Brown gets a new hot pool this year. That’s why the performance assessment has to be well-formulated and consider a diverse set of criteria.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      Yeah it gets pretty hard to determine, I agree. I think a good portion of teacher evaluation has to be left to school administrators. Maybe a multi-faceted yearly evaluation which includes some tests, some student reviews, a self-evaluation, and an administrator review.Report

  2. Avatar Sam M says:

    “First of all, I think just about everyone agrees on two fundamentals: teachers are probably paid too little…”

    I think it’s a mistake to think everyone agrees about this. I think the fact that teachers so often go in strike is evidence enough. Lots of people don’t think they ought to be paid more.

    Me? I’m not sure. I do know that beginning teachers in Pittsburgh’s public schools get paid at least as much as low-level professors at the University of Pittsburgh. I also know that my friends who are teachers, while not rich, manage to lead pretty standard middle-class lives. Some of them use their summers to pursure personal interests. Others who want/need more money take seasonal jobs.

    Generally, I think non-teachers are too quick to talk about “cushy” schedules and long vacations. But these are things we really need to consider when discussing how much certain people “should” get paid.

    So I guess the question I have is, if you think teachers don’t get paid enough, how much is enough? What figure do you think would attract the right people in the right numbers?Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      You may be right that this is not so universally accepted. And again, it really depends on where you are (education is local after all). But I know plenty of people don’t go into teaching because it won’t pay the bills. At least where I’m from.

      How much is enough? Well that depends again on where you are. But I’d say it has to be competitive with private sector jobs, and it’s not, nor is the long-term salary potential since there really is very little upward mobility in the teaching sector.Report

    • Avatar M.Z. says:

      Teachers are among the highest paid professionals around here, and that is conceding the idea that teaching, particularly the elementary type, is a professional position. Since professionalization has occurred, class sizes have halved and teachers are getting bachelors and masters degrees. Some even have PhDs. For this, we have declining test scores. The plain truth is that it is closer to folklore than truth that teaching 5th grade math requires advanced education, great talent, and large amounts of money. The experience of home-schooled children should be enough to put the kibosh on the idea that the teacher is the most important cog in this wheel.Report

      • I agree completely. I’ve long said that I would much rather my kids be taught biology by someone with a biology degree, even if it’s just a Bachelor’s degree, than some person who majored in English and then took a couple of biology classes as part of her teaching certification.Report

        • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

          That’s not how it works. Teachers major in education, and then supplement that with their preferred subject. I actually think this is very valuable. This way teachers learn methodology not just subject matter; they are exposed to lots of the great ideas circulating the edu-sphere. They are made into professionals in their trade not just experts in a field. Lots of smart biologists make crappy teachers.

          That said, I don’t think master’s degrees are necessary or terribly good barometers of teacher quality. Then again, in Finland almost all teachers have masters degrees and their education is stellar.Report

          • At the local universities here you can major in whatever fields you like and then just tailor your Master’s degree towards the field you want to teach. I have a friend who majored in English and now teaches Psychology and Finance.

            In all my time working in public education I was amzed at the lack of knowledge of history shown by most of the history teachers who were bringing kids to our sites. But they could tell you all about how to build a really cool lesson plan.

            We trust graduate students to teach undergrads at the university level but not high schoolers? That doesn’t make any sense to me at all.Report

            • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

              We trust grad students to teach basic intro level classes to students who probably only have 1 grad student teaching them at a time (maybe 2, when school want to really skimp on their budgets).

              I agree that more subject matter is a good idea. If possible, I think it would be great to require more, not less, education for teachers – but education is expensive when your promised salary is pretty low.

              This is where merit pay comes in. If teachers think they’ll have somewhat higher pay if they do a good job, they will probably be able to spend more money on their education, gain a better knowledge of their subject matter, etc.

              Also, if I – an English major – wanted to teach HS math, I’d have to take a lot of catch-up math classes to be qualified. I can’t just get a MS in education and teach math.Report

              • I took several classes in college (Intro level stuff) that were taught by grad students. But that’s still probably going to be more advanced than high school classes.

                I’m not saying you could just go teach math, but you wouldn’t be required to take much. Maybe 2-3 classes tops. Would that really prepare you all that much? I just don’t like the over-emphasis on teaching methods and the extreme under-emphasis on subject matter.

                Read the post I linked to if you get a chance. There’s a lot ot be said for the attitude that comes from letting professionals in a given field teach it for just a year or two. The passion for the subject matter would more than compensate for a rough-around-the-edges teaching technique. And to be honest, from what i’ve seen of some of my kids’ teachers…it can’t be any worse.Report

              • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

                Actually you would need typically 3-4 content classes, and any prerequisites that those required. So for me I would need to take all the undergrad math classes that I missed and then 3-4 more math classes at the grad-level.Report

  3. Avatar jim says:

    i went through the credential program in california. very rigorous. my BA is in English Lit and i thought i would have something to offer in the classroom. then i actually got into a classroom. 3 classrooms, actually. eeesh. the kids were like wild animals. my first student observations were at a catholic elementary school. if these kids were a little wild, i thought, what are regular public school kids going to be like? much worse. i decided that i wasn’t interested in a daycare/crowd-control job that threatened lay-off at the first sign of state budget trouble.

    my wife, however, kept on with it and became a teacher. her degrees are in music and music education and she is good at what she does. but not a year has gone by in the last decade that she hasn’t seriously contemplated stopping. few people really value her hard work. she has received lay-off notices. the districts have managed to keep her on, but it’s an incredibly stressful period of time while we wait to find out whether or not our family income- still under 100k a year- will be halved.

    i’m not really making a point here- just adding some color to the discussion.Report

    • Avatar M.Z. says:

      You do really 90% of families are still under $100K/yr, right? You do realize that the 1960s ended close to 40 years ago, and the typical worker today can expect to change jobs every 3 years. A lot of folks don’t like hanging around teachers because they have this tendency to think they experience things no one else experiences.

      If she isn’t feeling appreciated enough, have her try IT, customer service, or help desk work.Report

      • Avatar jim says:

        “If she isn’t feeling appreciated enough, have her try IT, customer service, or help desk work.”

        i didn’t say that she didn’t feel appreciated. it’s my observation. you sound bitter, and that’s unfortunate. since the topic is education, and not the workforce in general, i thought it was a viewpoint worth sharing. i still do.

        and having a little bit of both viewpoints under my belt, i’ll go ahead and say that, unless you’ve been a teacher, or spent a great deal of time in a classroom, you probably think it’s a lot easier than it is.Report

      • Avatar Kyle says:

        “A lot of folks don’t like hanging around teachers because they have this tendency to think they experience things no one else experiences.”

        So true. I think, being in the classroom – as with any job really – experience gives you insights into certain things you thought wouldn’t have been a problem that are, vice-versa, and how to weigh things. That said, I think teachers have a tendency to over-emphasize the importance of their point of view while denying the validity of others’.Report

  4. Avatar Sam M says:

    In the rural Rust Belt town where I live, I think teachers get paid a good deal more than the average worker.

    If you graduate from high school and just take a job in a plant, you will make maybe $8 an hour. Later, that goes higher if you get some skills and become, maybe a tool and die maker. In which case you are looking at maybe $20 an hour, best case. But it takes a long time to get to that stage.

    I think a new teacher starts in the mid $30,000 range. That’s a pretty darn good wage.Report

  5. Avatar token liberal says:

    disclaimer: my wife is a teacher

    The big assumption is that there is a good way to measure teacher performance. I have yet to see a proposal that sounds like it would work. Here are some potential problems.

    1. class size increases. Due to budget cuts class sizes increased this year. This will have a negative impact on performance so comparing a students scores last year with their scores this year isn’t effective.

    2. class composition matters. If you give a teacher 4 severe behavior problems it will drastically affect the performance of the entire class. Teacher’s will then be competing to pick the right students, and the best politicians will get the best students, not necessarily the best teachers.

    3. Acts of God. What happens to teacher evaluations in New Orleans after Katrina?

    5. Collaboration. If teachers are competing with one another will they help each other as much?

    I could go on, but this is a good starting point.Report

  6. Avatar Moff says:

    From a practical and heartless standpoint, I don’t know that the public school system is all that broken: I mean, it may not improve our kids’ skills in language, math, and other disciplines, but it certainly teaches them how the system works and totally rewards those who catch on. If you’re good at memorization and regurgitation, if you’re socially adept enough to impress the people in charge, and if you can recognize the invisible line between acceptable behavior and what’s too big an affront to the status quo, you’re very likely going to get ahead.

    If, though, we believe that education’s goal shouldn’t be a furtherance of the status quo (and I don’t think it should; in fact, I think there’s a great danger in letting the system continue, and I would suggest that even now some of the political bullshit we’re seeing is a result of a system that rewards efficiency, and thus sliding by, rather than rigorous grappling with empirical reality), I really think the system is irreparably broken. No, that’s not accurate — I think it’s a system that was built to traffic in a very specific kind of learning, a visual, linear, book-based kind. And I think that system worked pretty well back when the world moved more slowly. But in practice, the effect today is the same as it being broken.

    Kids are educated every day now in too many ways to count, and because they are not as stupid as your stereotypical bad second-grade teacher believes, they don’t buy into the whole centralized-authority paradigm that obtains in nearly every K-12 classroom. When your classmates asked “Why do we have to learn this stuff?” in algebra, it was annoying, because shut up; but really, it was a totally valid question. Because I would wager a wide swath of the post-high school population gets along just fine without algebra every day. (And obviously, there are excellent reasons to learn algebra whether you’re going to use it or not, but I don’t think most teachers are sharing those reasons or necessarily aware of them. When the answer is “So that you can graduate,” students are right not to take it seriously.)

    I’ve linked to it many times, and I will again: This is a great book, even almost forty years after its publication, and it gets at the heart of what’s wrong with our educational system and offers ideas on how to fix it. I have no more hope that it will ever be taken seriously than Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner did, but if I had my druthers and one wish, I’d revamp our public schools with a program along the lines suggested here, with a core curriculum focused on math, languages, and history (an idea I nabbed from Robert Heinlein that makes a lot of sense, because it covers the most fundamental components of the human condition).Report

    • Avatar Moff says:

      Oh, and by “offers ideas on how to fix it,” I mean, it basically says, “Throw it away and start over very differently.”Report

    • Avatar token liberal says:

      “Kids are educated every day now in too many ways to count, and because they are not as stupid as your stereotypical bad second-grade teacher believes, they don’t buy into the whole centralized-authority paradigm that obtains in nearly every K-12 classroom.”

      This sentence doesn’t make sense. They are taught to count too much? My wife is a second grade teacher, and I know many more. They don’t believe their students are stupid and they aren’t trying to indoctrinate them into a some imaginary authority system. Teachers have to teach 2nd grade from a position of authority or else the classroom would become chaotic.Report

      • Avatar Moff says:

        I think you’re being serious, so I’m going to respond as if you were:

        1) Education is not a process that just happens in a classroom. Kids (and adults) are educated by what they see on TV, what they read in books, what they hear from friends and family, and from so many other sources that it wouldn’t be possible to count them all.

        2) I referred to a “stereotypical bad second-grade teacher.” I’m not referring to your wife, and I’m not arguing the existence of many good second-grade teachers. It was just meant as a turn of phrase. There are certainly elementary (and junior and senior high) school teachers who condescend to children.

        3) And there is certainly a mind-set in many classrooms that you listen to the teacher because she or he is older and bigger, and not because she or he is right. I’m not talking about classroom control — obviously, that’s essential, and kids need direction and a teacher has to be the person in charge. I’m talking about when children ask reasonable (if difficult) questions or have reasonable ideas or take reasonable positions that a teacher would prefer not to deal with and those questions or ideas or positions are brushed off or dismissed, or even mocked.

        And though I agree teachers are generally not trying to indoctrinate students, indoctrination still happens by osmosis. Kids learn to appease their teachers. And in part, this is OK — it’s a social skill. But there’s also a significant pernicious aspect, where kids learn that the most important thing is to garner praise and avoid criticism by behaving the way the teacher wants.

        I certainly don’t mean to cast aspersions on your wife or any of the teachers you know, or to imply that there aren’t many, many, many great, hard-working, utterly competent teachers out there.Report

        • Avatar token liberal says:

          I am being serious and I responded because I felt you were oversimplifying and generalizing in a way that doesn’t reflect my personal experience with many educators.

          Your use of stereotypical confused me. I think you used it to mean that the average second grade teacher is bad, otherwise your point would be about the minority which would seem like an odd point to make. However, stereotypical means an oversimplification, which again would be odd because you’d be conceding up front that your comment doesn’t reflect that majority of classrooms.Report

          • Avatar Moff says:

            That’s fair. No, I just meant that, in my opinion, there’s a certain type of teacher who puts an emphasis on conformity and behavior over learning, and that enough exist to fall into a broad but recognizable set — I know I’ve encountered a few. But I see your point.Report

  7. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Is the status quo good enough?

    If we change things, will it result in the bell curve shifting to the right or will it result in a flattening of the curve?

    But enough about health care, let’s talk about education reform…Report

  8. Avatar EngineerScotty says:

    I think a lot of the “problem” is that teachers, like many public-sector professionals, have enjoyed the protections of organized labor whereas many parents of their students, working in the private sector, have not enjoyed the same. The “average Joe’s” standard of living has gone down, and there is a lot of resentment of public employees as a result.

    A lot of this is fanned, of course, by economic conservatives who want lower taxes–and in the case of education in particular, by those who dislike the secular education offered by public education–if (public) school prayer is illegal, then what good are the public schools and why should they be funded?

    While labor has been under attack for years in this country, many unions have themselves to blame in one regard–they have been focusing only on their own industry or profession, and not taking a stronger stand as workers in service industries, low-end manufacturing, agriculture, etc. have seen their standards of living decline and their jobs shipped overseas. As a result–many lower-income people, who might otherwise be sympathetic to labor, have come to resent unions and union members as self-dealing parasites–no better than the corporations they oppose.Report

  9. Avatar Sam M says:

    Sure, some places are more expensive than others. New York City, for instance. At the same time, a teacher in NYC with a masters and eight years of experience makes more than $70,000 a year. ( The top pay is somewhere around $100,000 a year.

    Now consider this, from Wikipedia:

    “Overall, the distribution of household income in New York City is characterized by tremendous disparities. This phenomenon is especially true of Manhattan, which in 2005 was home to the wealthiest U.S. census, tract with a household income of $188,697, as well as the poorest, where household income was $9,320.[38] … In 2006 the average weekly wage in Manhattan was $1,453, the highest among the largest counties in the United States.[15]”

    So… In New York City, two teachers who get married will have a combined income somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000. Which puts them right around the median income in THE WEALTHIEST NEIGHBORHOOD IN THE UNITED STATES. The average weekly salary in Manhattan is also quite a bit higher for teachers than the average person.

    Again, that doesn’t sem to bad. The idea that teachers are hideously uncer-compensated seems like a relic of the not so distant past. Kind of like nurses. (I know. My wife is a nurse. It’s AWESOME.)Report

    • Avatar token liberal says:

      Los Angeles isn’t nearly as good. 10 years with a masters is slightly over $60k. That’s not getting you very far in L.A.

      “So… In New York City, two teachers who get married will have a combined income somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000.”

      This is not a true reflection of the situation. You cherry picked the top salary and you fail to specify how many years a teacher would need to reach that salary. Two new teachers in NY will make 90k between the two of them. If you want a true picture you should find the median pay for an idea of what teachers in NY make.Report

  10. Avatar Sam M says:

    Eight years and a masters lands you at more than $70,000 a year meaning that someone in his or her early thirties could be making this amount. Meaning the combined income for two such teachers would be $140,000. People more advanced/experienced would be at the $200,000 range. So from your 30s to your 60s you would meander through this range. For a while a little below the median. For a while a little above it. Sure, when you are 22 and fresh out of college, you would struggle to make it. Is the goal to pay teachers so much that this is not something people go through? Why should it be different from almost every other profession in this regard?

    If you are interested, here’s a link for the salary schedule.

    You make it to the top pay grade after 20 years. Meaning someone who graduates at 22 years old and begins working in NYC school will be at the top pay grade by their early 40s. Meaning they will be making that pay rate for about 20 years before retiring.

    This is not rock-star level salary. But it’s not destitution, either. If you want, you can also wait tables over the summer and make an extra couple grand.

    No, it’s not easy. I wouldn’t want to do it, especially at the elementary level. Still, it has it’s perks. You never work the summer. You never work a holiday. You never travel for work. And honestly, the pay is not nearly as bad as it used to be.Report

  11. Avatar Sam M says:

    By the way, regarding teachers only making $60,000 a year in LA, here are some demographic data for that city:

    “The median income for a household was $36,687, and for a family was $39,942. Males had a median income of $31,880, females $30,197.”

    Two 32-year-old teachers, if they were to marry, would be making $120,000 a year. That would mae their household income about four-times that of the city’s median income.

    Looking at the salary table, I see that you also get a 15 percent differential if you have national board certification, an extra $3,000 a year for multi-lingual skills. Meaning about an extra $25,000 for the couple. If you work another few years, you can also add a full 30 percent to your base salary.

    Again, this will not get you a palace in the Hollywood hills. But it’s decent pay.Report

    • Avatar token liberal says:

      You should link to sources for your facts.

      In 2007 the median income in L.A. county was $53,494

      I didn’t take the time to fact check any of your other claims.Report

      • Avatar Kyle says:

        Perusing the Census data, it clearly says the county median income is $53,494, but the city’s is $36,687. However, the city data is from 1999, while the county is from 2007. As a comparison California state’s median income was $47,493 in 1999 and $59,928 in 2007.

        So, you’re both right…you’re just talking about two different things. In terms of public education, the primary public school district in LA proper, is LAUSD which is largely but not completely co-terminous with the city, not the county. (

        I’m not sure what’s served here by bouncing around numbers but it seems that Sam M’s general point that teachers make decent, if not extravagant livings that are often higher than an area’s median salaries seems to bear out. However, using the LA examples he seems to have overstated his case.Report

        • Avatar token liberal says:

          I’m not sure we can deduce much of anything from the median income. Here are a few reasons why. Being a teacher requires 5 years of college, and people with 5 years of college probably make a lot more than the median. Why then should we conclude that the median is a good range for teachers pay?

          There is also the issue of wealth disparity. Is the median income a good metric if people making the median are unable to buy a house in L.A.?

          If someone wants to convince me that teacher pay is fine then show me the median pay of people with the same level of education!Report

  12. Avatar Kyle says:

    I think it’s pretty clear – ever since I uttered (coined?) the phrase educational triage – that I’m all for any idea that will help and testing reforms to see which ones help the most. Which isn’t to say I support sloppy implementation of half-cocked ideas but we should, at least, be talking about and exploring as many options as we can.

    On merit pay, I like where you started from, E.D.I don’t think anyone thinks that any single reform will fix all or even most problems (in any field – let alone education). I think what sidetracked the discussions I was party to earlier in the week was amalgamating merit pay with accountability, which is misleading – I think.

    Merit pay, at least conceptually, is focused on teacher recruitment and teacher retention. As a solution to the problem of how do we attract more, good teachers and keep good ones, it seems really promising and increasingly I’m thinking DC’s two-track system is the least turbulent way to try it out. It seems that a lot of established teachers are concerned about how “merit” is defined and judged.

    On the other hand the idea of accepting a straight-forward accountability in exchange for more money, is something that – quite honestly – seems almost necessary to attract more top-tier college students. Not because the would be I-bankers and lawyers will do anything for a buck, but because the current system is so alien and pardon the word unprofessional. For people who’ve spent the last 8-10 years of their lives working extraordinarily hard to meet and exceed clearly posted expectations and then reaped the rewards of being held individually accountable for their work, that’s a system that works for us/them. It’s a system that’s familiar and accepted. Working in a system where individual effort is potentially invisible, often goes unrewarded, and expectations aren’t just low but wholly unrelated to job performance, pay, and hiring decisions is – for lack of a better word – uncomfortable. Except for the people who find it exceptionally comfortable because by decoupling effort and rewards, it means effort falls victim to whim and self-motivation.

    To go back to the concerns that teachers have about merit definition and assessment, I don’t think they should be taken lightly. I think what token liberal brought up, what Travis and TFT mentioned in the other threads matters. To build any halfway decent system, you have to work through all the possible problems and concerns you can.

    I happen to think that we can successfully add significant due process for teachers, backups, exceptions for extenuating circumstances, and control for expected outliers. I also think that since the point of the whole exercise is to try to give more money to people as fairly as possibly, we shouldn’t be too hung up – prospectively – on whether it’s a system that’s 75% fair or 92% fair. Either way as long as teachers aren’t losing money it’s more fair than a system that doesn’t offer anyone the chance to earn more money. It’s also more fair than a system that pays everyone equally without regard to difficulty of work. Which might be equitable but certainly isn’t fair. It’s probably worth looking at teacher attitudes to see what, if any, effects merit pay would/does have in the work environment.

    I think the most interesting and difficult open question/problem is how to adapt merit pay proposals for subjects outside of the core, without standards or standardized tests.Report

  13. Avatar Steve Sailer says:

    Kyle makes a very good point:

    “On the other hand the idea of accepting a straight-forward accountability in exchange for more money, is something that – quite honestly – seems almost necessary to attract more top-tier college students. Not because the would be I-bankers and lawyers will do anything for a buck, but because the current system is so alien and pardon the word unprofessional. For people who’ve spent the last 8-10 years of their lives working extraordinarily hard to meet and exceed clearly posted expectations and then reaped the rewards of being held individually accountable for their work, that’s a system that works for us/them. It’s a system that’s familiar and accepted. Working in a system where individual effort is potentially invisible, often goes unrewarded, and expectations aren’t just low but wholly unrelated to job performance, pay, and hiring decisions is – for lack of a better word – uncomfortable.”

    When you get older and less ambitious and value security more, the current system strikes would-be teachers as a pretty good deal, but it has a hard time attracting star 20-somethings who want to standout. So, you wind up with a lot of non-star young people in the teaching ranks.Report