Saturday, December 14, 2013

Why Teacher Merit Pay Is Stupid

Sometimes we forget the obvious, so let me spell it out. Here's why teacher merit pay will never make sense.

In a business, here's how merit pay is supposed to work. Watch carefully:

1) International Widgetmakers, Inc makes $1,000,000 more profit than originally projected.

2) CEO Mr. McMoneygutz says, "Wow, that's great. Let us share this bounty with the hard workers who helped earn it in the first place."

3) A large slice of the million bucks is divied up and handed over to grateful employees based on how much help they were in earning it.

In business, here's how merit pay sometimes actually works. Again, pay attention.

1) International Widgetmakers, Inc makes $1,000,000 more profit than originally projected.

2) CEO Mr. McJerkface says, "Hey, Board of Directors. You're so lucky to have me. You should give me a pile of that there extra moneys."

3) A large slice of the million bucks is handed to the CEO and hardworking employees get screwed again.

Notice what each of these versions of merit pay have in common: An extra stack of money lying around. That's why companies having lean times don't give out merit bonuses-- because to give out bonuses, you have to have extra money.

So to discuss the wisdom of teacher merit pay, we don't have to talk about its motivational qualities, or its philosophical validity. All we have to ask this question:

When and where has it ever been possible to describe a public school system with the phrase "has an extra stack of money lying around."

When a company does well, that means, by definition, that it has made a ton of money. When a company does poorly, it has NOT made a ton of money. But the amount of money a school district takes in is exactly the same regardless of how good a job it does.

Reformy business guys know this. In fact, it is one of the things that drives them crazy, because it offends their very understanding of how the world is supposed to work, just as their notion that a school whose students get low test scores should get less money makes us see red. It is one of the bedrock fundamentals on which private sector and public ed people disagree. Much of what has happened in education reform can be understood as business guys doing their damndest to force schools to conform to what they view as fundamental rules of the universe.

(There's a whole other piece of writing to be done about why the free market profit motive (which I happen to have a great deal of respect for) does not belong in many human service sectors. For now, I'll just observe that when your most beloved family member needs heart surgery, you do not look for the cheapest doctor you can find, nor do you want the doctor who is preoccupied with how he's going to make his mortgage payment. You do not want the doctor who will look at your beloved as some sort of obstacle standing between him and his pay check.)

No school district has extra money. (In fact, no school district "has" any money-- it all belongs to the taxpayers.) The only way to have extra money would be for the district to say, "Taxpayers, our teachers did so well this year we'd like to collect an extra three mils worth of taxes so we can pay them appropriately." Call me crazy, but I don't see that happening.

Merit pay is extra money. There is no extra money. So what we're talking about in schools is not "merit pay," but "pay." Any school district proposing "merit pay" is really saying, "See this bucket of money? We are going to let you teachers compete to see who gets the biggest chunks of it."

This is certainly a creative way to rewrite salary scales. But it is not merit pay.


  1. Brilliant piece. Thanks.

    In "Drive", Daniel Pink does a great job dispelling the value of merit pay for creative work. He points out we are motivated by three things: autonomy, mastery and purpose. The reformies don't really care about that… in fact their hatred of our community is driving them to undermine the things that make schools work in the long haul. It's insane.

  2. Oh, I get it. Oh, no. I won't get it.

  3. Merit pay is based on money as prime motivation for teaching. But it just ain't so. I taught science for almost 30 years and have yet to meet a teacher who became a teacher for the paycheck teachers get. Teachers (most of them I have known, anyway) became teachers because they wanted to do something meaningful with their lives, in spite of the meager pay they would get for it. You see, life is about more than earning money, and the truth is that being a teacher has some very meaningful rewards. Before I was a teacher, I was a consultant and then an Ecologist/Naturalist who worked for state government. After I became a teacher, I realized that there is something profoundly rewarding about sharing knowledge with young people, experiencing their excitement when they "get it" and the incredible benefits of knowing that you can actually "make a difference."
    Yes, an increase in pay would be nice. In fact, I had to create a business on the side to make enought money and raise my family so I could teach. But then, after a few years, I had some students come back and tell me what a difference I made in their lives, how they were motivated to learn and then went on to get their PhD and become scientists themselves. No other job in the world, to my knowledge, offers such opportunity or real rewards, or provides a potentially greater impact on society . Yet our government (local, state, or federal) does not provide adequate funding to properly support education.
    The real problem with merit pay is accurately described in this blog plus the fact that it is impossible to create a way to deliver it fairly. Education is much too complex and diverse to accomplish that. One of the major things that makes education function at all in some of the horrendous environments found in public schools is the close cooperation and support found among teachers and their selfless support of each other. Merit pay has great potential to destroy even that.

  4. These days, it's very important to search loyal, hard-working employees who can stay with the company for the long haul. Recruiting such people can be a easy process but keeping them can be a hard nut o crack. Thanks for this wonderful article.

    Jimmie Menon
    Guelph Payroll Service

    1. Good luck finding people stupid enough to plan on "staying with the company for the long haul." The American worker should have seen enough by now to know that the company has no interest in staying with her or him for the long haul. Unless an employee is particularly trusting or stupid, they will be looking around all the time.