Monday, July 23, 2018

Another Merit Pay Failure

Merit pay for teachers remains a golden dream for many Reformsters. Of course, there's a problem with that-- it doesn't actually work. It has not worked in a variety of settings and under a variety of conditions. Of course, "worked" is usually measured as "raised standardized test scores," which is a lousy measure of teacher quality, anyway.

The effectiveness of merit pay in the business world is questionable, but merit pay for teachers doesn't even make sense. After all, your bonus is supposed to come out of all the extra money that the business made this year; that is not how schools work. In education, you only have two options:

1) Set aside a pile of merit pay money at the beginning of the year and let the teachers fight over it.

2) If your teachers all have a really good year, raise taxes to pay for their bonuses.

Guess which model is more popular.

Your merit pay is out there, somewhere.
Merit pay for teachers is also premised on the notion that teachers could try harder-- they just aren't going to until they're bribed. But if that's really the case, then offering a tiny base pay with the prospect of tiny bonuses doesn't seem like the way to harness greed as a tool to overcome slothfulness.

But it turns out there's another way to screw up merit pay.

Arizona implemented merit pay on the state level via sales tax (after carefully looking at all the evidence that it wouldn't work) and, of course, made it available to charter schools as well. One charter thought it had found a clever way to use merit pay to plug holes in its own budget.

Heritage Elementary School is a K-8 charter school with campuses in Williams and Glendale, plus others under the La Paloma brand.  They focus on "superior academics and family values with a character-based curriculum." On their "careers" page they note that they have a "family environment, a great staff, supportive administration, and our teachers are treated with respect." One would hope the "respect" thing was a given, but since we're talking about Arizona, maybe it needs to be said.

I'm not sure everyone would agree, however. News broke last week that twenty teachers (all women) had been denied the second half of their merit pay because they had resigned from Heritage Glendale. First-- twenty teachers have resigned effective the end of this year?! Yikes. The school had about 920 students last year. The family seems to have some issues. The second half of the merit pay would be about $1,500 to $1,800 (the first installment was paid during the school year). Teachers can use that; the average pay at the school is $38,734 according to, but Arizona Republic reports the average as $32,899. The school's principal, Justin Dye, was not very helpful:

I understand their viewpoint. The reality is the school board can decide how to use it (301 money). There are schools that hold the money…They could decide one teacher gets all the money. It's been done before.

So, tough luck. (I'll note here that Dye, because this is Arizona, runs some side businesses that are contracted by the school, like the preschool program and the transportation service.) It does raise the question-- exactly how motivational is merit pay when it may be awarded and then withdrawn on an administrative whim?

The action by the school's unelected four-person board was taken in June. Teachers appealed the decision, and were told that only those returning to Heritage would get their merit bonus. Then they threatened legal action. The Arizona Republic published stories about the stiffing of the teachers on Monday and Tuesday and, miraculously, the board decided to have a quick call-in meeting and decided in about ten minutes to fork over the promised pay that the teachers had already earned. 

Charter Superintendent Jackie Trujillo said the news coverage had nothing to do with the decision, but that Principal Dye had pushed the board to pay up. Trujillo also showed the Republic budget documents indicating that Heritage teachers would be getting a 17% raise-- which will mean that Heritage teachers' average pay will be only $14,000 less than the projected average for public school teachers.

(And don't forget-- this is Arizona, where charter schools get paid more per pupil than the public schools do.)

So one more Arizona charter establishes itself as a highly ethical and trustworthy place where teachers can expect to be treated like family, with respect, because character-based education is what they're all about. Also, merit pay. And if you're a teacher looking for work-- well, now you know about one more place that belongs on your Last Resort list.

1 comment:

  1. "Merit pay for teachers is also premised on the notion that teachers could try harder-- they just aren't going to until they're bribed." When I was trying to explain the pure insanity of "paying teachers more to get them to do a better job" theory to my father, I used a comparison for him with the years he had been on our small community's school board. I said: Dad, if they had paid you more to do that job would you have done it better? He simply looked at me as if I made no sense.