Merit Pay Problematic, Money Is Not the Ultimate Motivator for Teachers
A former supporter of merit pay for teachers tells why it doesn’t work.
by Marion Brady
New contributor to the Gazette
July 1, 2009
Reprinted from Knight-Ridder/Tribune with the author’s permission
From the farmhouse where I once lived, it was pretty much a straight shot up Ohio Route 14 to Lincoln Electric on the east side of Cleveland. Fifty years ago it was about an hour's drive.
Lincoln Electric manufactured electrical equipment, mostly electric welders. A neighbor, friend, and father of one of my students worked there. He rarely missed an opportunity to remind me that he made about three times more money assembling electric welders than I made teaching his daughter.
I knew the way to Lincoln Electric not because I was interested in changing jobs, but because I was talking to someone there about a project I thought could improve Southeast High School.
By just about any measure, Lincoln was progressive. In 1914 they created an Employee Advisory Board made up of elected representatives from every department. In the next few years, long before most other companies, everybody got free life insurance, paid vacations, stock ownership plans, bonuses for useful suggestions, automatic cost-of-living raises, and continuous employment guarantees. During the worst years of the Great Depression, average pay for employees more than doubled.
What particularly interested me about Lincoln, however, was the company's "Incentive Bonus" program. Simply put, the better job you did, the more you got paid.
Merit pay! I loved the idea! The agriculture teacher and I began an effort, blessed by the school board, to bring merit pay to Southeast High School.
It was a real challenge. Every problem we solved seemed to create two or three new problems. Month after month we talked about "the devil in the details." Finally, notwithstanding how commonsensical the whole idea seemed, notwithstanding our initial enthusiasm, notwithstanding how "American" the project, we concluded that the gulf between manufacturing things and teaching kids was unbridgeable. The devil wasn't in the details; the devil was in the fundamentals.
Here are some relevant facts - facts still true:
Every kid is different. In industry, quality controls discard unsatisfactory "raw material." Teachers have to work with whatever the local parent population produces smart and slow, motivated and lazy, clever and clueless.
Every class is different. Two classes of the same size, studying the same subject, in the same room, at the same time of day and year, will have different "collective personalities" and have to be taught differently.
Every subject is different. A performance evaluation for a band director won't work for a teacher helping kids learn how to give impromptu speeches in an English class, or analyze propaganda in a social studies class, or study milk production on a local dairy farm in an agriculture class.
Every teacher is different. Some come on like Marine drill sergeants, others like Mary Poppins. Both approaches, and everything in between, can succeed for teachers who build on their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. How a particular style works will be different for every student, and the results may not be known for years.
Every work environment is different. Some administrators treat teachers as professionals, encouraging independence, growth and creativity. Others are authoritarian and controlling, or even see teachers as the enemy. Not surprisingly, teachers function differently in different environments.
Every resource base differs. There's no standardization of the kinds and amounts of instructional tools and materials available, of monies for supplies and enrichment activities, or for the ability and willingness of parents or volunteers to share their knowledge, experience and support.
That's six major variables affecting teacher performance, only one of which is controlled by the teacher.
I can think of no way to bulldoze all those variables into a level playing field for all teachers. And in the more than 50 years since we tried and failed, I've never seen anyone else do it.
Twenty -two governors recently agreed that merit pay is a great idea, and the governor of Texas is putting a plan in place. It'll be interesting to watch what happens. A perception of unfairness is a sure-fire way to destroy a school system.
But even if some genius figures out how to do what my friend Bruce and I couldn't do, it won't solve the problem.
Merit pay is based on an assumption about basic human nature, that money is the ultimate motivator, and the behavior of hundreds of teachers I've known says that isn't true.
Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, argues persuasively that creating quality is a deeper human drive than acquisitiveness. Sure, teachers want enough to live decently. But the teachers who readers should most want teaching their kids and grandkids are those for whom quality work is more important than money. If the opportunity to achieve that is missing, raising salaries enough to keep teachers in the profession will trigger a tax revolt.
Marion began his career in education in 1952, teaching in a semi-rural high school in northeastern Ohio. He has taught at every level from 6th grade through the university, been a county-level school administrator, publisher consultant, teacher educator, textbook author, contributor to professional journals, author of professional books, writer of instructional materials, visitor to schools across America and abroad, and long-time education columnist for Knight-Ridder/Tribune.