Commentary: There’s no merit in merit pay plans for rewarding, retaining SC teachers
While the Editorial Staff of the Post and Courier rightfully raises cautions about newly elected Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver, who has a history of extremely conservative positions on public education, that caution should also extend to Weaver’s plans for merit pay to address teacher needs in South Carolina.
I am in my fifth decade as an educator in SC, beginning as a high school English teacher in Upstate SC in 1984. Over that career I have witnessed one frustrating pattern: A constant state of education reform that recycles the exact same crisis rhetoric followed by the same education reforms.
Over and over again.
In fact, in very recent history, SC and the nation have experienced a high intensity focus on teacher quality, teacher evaluation, and teacher merit pay models under the Obama administration.
And just like in the so-called real world of business, merit pay models for teachers have failed.
Under Obama and then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, federal and state policy helped implement teacher evaluation and pay schemes modeled on Bill Gates’s use of stack ranking. Notably this value-added model of teacher evaluation and pay was famously heralded by the media when Michelle Rhee was chancellor of DC schools.
However, over time, Rhee’s tenure was unmasked as mostly a fraud but also as extremely harmful for teachers and students.
While merit pay remains a popular approach to recruiting and maintaining workers across many fields, research has consistently shown that merit pay does not work, and often has negative consequences, especially in education.
Research by Dan Pink and Alfie Kohn, for example, highlight the disconnect between what merit pay promises and how that plays out in the real world.
Gary Clabaugh challenged Obama’s merit pay polices, offering evidence that remains valid today and suggests not only caution about Weaver’s merit pay plan but also solid reasons not to try the same thing again.
Merit pay fails education, teachers, and students in the following ways:
- Merit pay assumes workers need motivation to work harder; teachers are often overworked and their ability to be effective is not a result of how hard they are working, but the conditions under which they work.
- Merit pay is often linked to standardized testing in education. As a result, merit pay incentivizes teaching to the tests and corrupts evaluation systems intended to measure learning.
- Merit pay creates a culture of competition, instead of cooperation. Research also shows that competition is more harmful than cooperation, especially in the field of education where all educators should be invested in the success of all students.
- Measurable student achievement, mostly through standardized testing, is more heavily linked to out-of-school factors (60-80%) than to in-school factors or teacher quality (10-15%). Therefore, merit pay overemphasizes direct and measurable teacher impact and often holds teachers and students accountable for factors beyond their control.
Policy makers in SC are faced with two facts: (1) Teacher pay is important to address and long overdue in the state; however, (2) merit pay is an ineffective and even harmful approach to addressing pay and teacher shortages.
Since SC has tried to use pay incentive to address teacher shortages in struggling districts already, we will better serve the needs of our students if we commit to new and different reforms.
The greatest need in SC is that elected officials directly address poverty across the state—access to healthcare, stable jobs with strong pay, and access to affordable housing.
But we can also do better with in-school reform.
If we want to bolster the teaching profession among our high-poverty districts, we must address teaching and learning conditions, which include the following:
- Parent, community, and administrative support for teachers.
- School facilities in good repair.
- Fully funding teaching and learning technologies and materials.
- Guaranteeing students who are struggling have access to experienced and certified teachers.
- Recognizing that student success is linked to teacher quality, but that teacher quality is only one element in a complex network of forces that help children learn.
SC remains faced with a very old problem—high-poverty students struggle to achieve well enough or fast enough compared to their more affluent peers.
Those children deserve new solutions, and merit pay is a tired gimmick that has never worked and will fail children and teachers once again.