Brief Thought on Merit Pay for Teachers

I often find myself agreeing with Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, but in an otherwise interesting piece about dealing with income redistribution in the United States, he offers an argument about teacher merit pay that I’ve never understood:

Merit based pay need not be tied to test scores. In fact, I’d much prefer a system that empowered principals to reward the best teachers in their schools from a larger total pool of salary money.

Whenever I read this argument–from education reformers on the right or the left–I find myself wondering who they imagine hires and refuses to take the steps necessary to remove ineffective teachers in the first place? In most cases, the very principals these reformers want to give arbitrary power to determine the “merit” of individual teachers.

I’m not sure that we don’t need to consider alternative compensation mechanisms for public education, but giving more power to administrators to make arbitrary choices is based on nothing more than a misguided cult of principal leadership, especially given the academic abilities of those who’d be entrusted to make those decisions.

I can’t imagine a better way to destroy the morale of the staff at a school than to give principals the ability to arbitrarily reward some teachers. If we’re going to consider merit pay, let’s talk about it exclusively in terms of data, not hunches about leadership.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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    • Good post. I think the problem is in our universities’ schools of education. Much of their coursework is laughable.

      Rural schools that encourage coaches (PE majors) to teach subjects they don’t understand very well, then promote them to administrative roles, are also part of the problem.

      These guys shouldn’t be judging teachers who come to their jobs with degrees in the academic disciplines.

      Some teacher training is necessary — maybe 8 units or so. But learning what to teach instead of how to teach should be emphasized.

      • “Rural schools that encourage coaches (PE majors) to teach subjects they don’t understand very well, then promote them to administrative roles, are also part of the problem”

        And you’ve actually SEEN this happen? Where? When? Blowin’ smoke is NOT an effective debating technique.

  • “. . . misguided cult of principal leadership . . .” This is the problem. And not just in schools. An org chart that sets up ranked subordination as a primary feature is deeply flawed when the organization is populated with women. Newsflash: most women (and an increasing proportion of men) don’t want a boss; they want colleagues. Respect is NOT deference and a work unit can find order and function without a “boss” whose prerogatives include exerting boss-whims over minions. Schools and other workplaces are not Nineteenth-century textile factories, ferpetessake.

  • Actually you’re absolutely right. what I don’t understand, is why in a school district teachers don’t have better cross town liaisons, with other teachers of their subject matter as well. If I was a history teacher who knew the civil rights material better than most but, wasn’t keen on early American history…. and another across town did, why not trade places for a month, to give students at both schools a better education at it, and a change of pace.

    Teachers of history , Math, english should be able to standardize learning to a knew high. instead of principals. If one has a particular knack for teaching dangling participles. get her out there for the whole district.

    And give them per diem for it.

    Teachers of history , Math, english should be able to standardize learning to a knew high.

      • You and I know thats wrong. the whole Idea is to educate you r students with the best information available. Primary, and Secondary education is for edification not capitalism.

        The whole country is basing teaching education as if it is a commodity, it is not. It is an inherent right in this country.

        Of course, that would mean teaching everyone to the best of their ability no matter the skin color or poverty line. when they are in school… something the conservatives (who no longer knows what conservatism means) wouldn’t like.

        Secondly, I realize that home life, is a big factor in how a child absorbs knowledge, but that impact would be somewhat less, if Ideas were spread within districts because teachers collaborated, instead of competing with each other.

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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