Merit Pay and Teacher Autonomy
Picking up the merit pay ball from Will for a moment, let’s hash out a few competing ideas.
First of all, I think just about everyone agrees on two fundamentals: teachers are probably paid too little, and yet teacher pay in and of itself will not solve the problem with our education system. There are other areas filled with more contention. Should teachers be paid on seniority alone? Has tenure become an outdated model that protects teachers over students? If we do decide to offer merit pay to keep the best teachers rather than merely the longest-serving teachers, how do we measure the success of those teachers? Or would offering merit funds to schools be more effective?
There is a contradiction inherent in my two-item-wish-list for teachers. I want to see a return to teacher autonomy and I’d like to see merit pay on the table. Autonomy is important for the same reason merit pay is important – it gives smart, creative, involved teachers a reason to begin and to remain teaching.
One huge problem with a program like Teach for America is that it brings in all these bright, hard-working young people who are only in it for a couple years. But that Teach for America enthusiasm can be transported to the rest of the teaching field. We just have to make teaching a desirable profession. Most Teach for America alumni go on to be lawyers and investment bankers because the program offers them great benefits at lots of good schools. Perhaps if young people saw teaching as a profession akin to being a lawyer, more high quality teachers would remain in the field instead of basically coming on as temporary employees in programs like Teach for America.
But pay is not everything. Look to Finland which was ranked first in the world on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessments and you’ll find teacher pay is not much more than the average American’s teacher salary (they have merit pay, school competition, tenure and teachers unions as well – illustrating that it’s possible to implement many different reforms and ideas without necessarily axing the old ones right away).
No, it’s not just pay it’s also autonomy, and the two exist in conflict. For one thing, quantifying teacher quality requires standardized testing – at least if you operate under any of the models we currently use. (You could avoid this by giving administrators more autonomy as well, allowing them to personally evaluate their teachers and give raises accordingly, but this opens its own can of worms obviously.)
Standardized testing leads to “teaching to the test” and away from autonomy and creativity. Indeed, this is where it becomes difficult for me to fully embrace merit pay as much as I’d like to. Is there a way to test but not make those tests too constricting? I embrace the idea that there are “multiple intelligences” that are not all easily wrapped up in a standardized test. To some, standardized tests are easy and so they test very well. To others, who may do fine in normal class settings, tests are incredibly difficult. While tests still do a fairly good job rating teachers and schools, they leave an awful lot out. Teacher quality can be quantified, but we need to also determine whether that process has its own detrimental effects, and if so, how to avoid them.
So what to do? How can the balance between evaluating our teachers and schools be struck with the need to let educators simply do their jobs? And how will continued efforts to increase school and subject choice play into this mix?