Merit Pay: It’s the Real World, Baby!

While I’m on a roll offending people, I want to talk about merit pay for public schoolteachers. Merit pay is giving a pay increase to teachers who actually produce results. And who are the major opponents of this novel idea? You guessed it: the teachers’ unions.

Opponents of merit pay argue that it’s unfair. According to them, if certain teachers are “buddy, buddy” with the principal, then they’re more likely to get a pay increase, whether they’re any good or not.

But that’s the real world, baby! In jobs that actually require effectiveness (e.g, corporate America), there are times when it’s not what you know, but whom you know. No, it’s not fair, but it’s better to have a system that rewards people on the basis of merit, rather than to pay everyone the same amount because some unfairness may creep into a meritocracy. Why should public schoolteachers be insulated from the ups-and-downs of real life?

The sense of entitlement held by a lot of public schoolteachers simply baffles me! They are such elitists. They’re against school choice because they think they shouldn’t have to compete like those in the real world. They hate No Child Left Behind because they feel that they’re above accountability.

I’m not saying NCLB is perfect, but, sheesh, at least it adds accountability into the system. I say we do to it what Bill Clinton suggested for affirmative action: mend it, don’t end it.

To be honest, I don’t get warm, fuzzy feelings when I think about the public school system. Its elitism on the backs of taxpayers simply galls me. There are teachers who have the audacity to think that they know more than parents, all because they have a piece of paper. In last week’s Meet the Press, Senator Carol McCaskill said, “We are who we are as a nation because we figured out how to educate our kids with public money, public education.” Give me a break! We were a great nation before public schools even existed.

I’m pleased that both Barack Obama and John McCain support merit pay for public schoolteachers. Obama actually got a poor reception with teachers’ unions because of this! He reminds me of Matt Santos, the Democratic candidate for President on The West Wing (played by Jimmy Smits): sure, he supports the usual liberal Democrat spiel of “tax and spend” for education. But he also imports accountability into the mix, ensuring that our tax dollars aren’t going down a rathole.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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16 Responses to Merit Pay: It’s the Real World, Baby!

  1. Anonymous says:

    “Tax and spend” sounds better than the GOP mantra “cut taxes and spend the hell out of your children’s future”–at least one is sensible. 🙂

    My wife started working at a KIPP school (read online about it). While full-blown merit pay will probably never work; heck it doesn’t even work in most American public companies, but sometimes there are public schools that get to pick teachers that they deem to be better and pay them more (My wife gets 20% more than the normal public school salary).

    In other words, one easy way to implement this might be to set the districts salary low and for (some) schools to raise some extra money and select their teachers. It seems to work in the small number of KIPP schools.


    I think there’s some merit to merit pay, but I can’t fathom how to actually implement it.


  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Jake,

    NPR has a story on one way to implement it. A lot of it has to do with whether there’s improvement among students. Of course, the problem there is that the teacher with the gifted and honors student may not get extra, since they can’t improve much more. But maybe there’s a way to address that.


  3. Anonymous says:

    that’s what I hear (and see as problematic), but I think you’d have to test for IQ beforehand to determine their capacity for learning.

    GATE and honors courses. Maybe your experience was better than mine, but most of the people in my high school clases were dunces. They need a lot of improvement! Heck, probably less than half of them even got a 1200 on the SAT test: they couldn’t perform basic math, they could hardly read, and their vocobularly was limited. Nor could they solve problems.



  4. James Pate says:

    I thought my classmates were good at math. Many of the ones in my honors’ classes took Advanced Chemistry, something I never attempted! Vocab wasn’t as good. Writing was OKAY. They were good at critical thinking. And, come to think of it, even many of the smart people in my class gor below 1200 on the SAT. But I only bypassed the 1200 mark on the fourth try! Of course, two of those times, I took it as a sophomore.


  5. Anonymous says:

    Then your teacher wouldn’t get a bonus! 😉 My younger brother goes to a private school and my parents have paid the (full) price. But it prepared him well and his teachers deserve a bonus: perfect scores on two of the SAT sections just like his older brother (only writing used to be separate). You’d never know that I once could write with all my typoes. Now I prefer watching TV to reading.

    Lazy teacher’s and strong unions ultimately lead to better private schools, thus ensuring increased social stratification which utterly contrary to the utopias of unions. The market forces will let them dig their own grave, unless of course you’re requesting government intervention. Both are ironic. 🙂


  6. James Pate says:

    That’s right–COMPETITION!


  7. Anonymous says:

    Bush’s “no child left behind” has turned into “pass them eventually regardless”–otherwise, many schools would not receive some much needed funding. Florida is an especially good example of this…
    As far as merit pay goes, it is a good one per se; however, the public education system needs to also encourage and rely on parental support–SUPPORT, not interference. As far as many private schools go, that “support” turns to interference and (in my own experience) the more the parents “interfere” (especially the honors parents, whose kids are the MOST competitive) the more the teachers are required to “re-weigh” the grading policies up to and including “changing” grades and matching exams to meet parental expectations and student competition. In my own case, we were told that the parents were not paying for their children to fail…even if they were. And all of mine were advanced and honors.
    I suppose my point is this: any system or idea such as “no child left behind” or merit pay for teachers, etc. needs to be subject to a lot of rules and regulations, to which many school administrators will not adhere–private, because the parents are paying for their children to succeed and public because of the need for funds. Mom


  8. Anonymous says:

    P.S.: To say nothing about the problem of “teaching to the tests” including the SAT, AP exams, and various state exams…as well as the “dumbing down” of said exams. Mom


  9. James Pate says:

    Hi Mom.

    But the good thing about No Child Left Behind is that there are clear standards that students must meet. And those standards are measured through standardized tests, so there’s an objective way to determine if the standards are being met. And there is an actual consequence if they’re not met. It’s no longer schools just getting money whether they’re good or not. They have to show that they’re working.

    Are there times when students are just passed along? Sure. There are weaknesses in every system. But we shouldn’t dump the idea of accountability just because it has a few gliches. We should work on the gliches.

    And, overall, I think that students should be measured with standardized tests, even in private schools. I’m not saying I completely like them, or that I always did well on them, or that they should be the sole thing that people look at. But it comes back to having an objective standard. If private schools can point to standardized tests and say, “look, here’s how the student is doing,” that should take care of parents who think their kids walk on water. Regardless of what they think, the kid did on the test as the kid did on the test. They can’t politically maneuver their way around test results.


  10. James Pate says:

    I really don’t think that teaching to the test has to be a major problem. The tests measure if people can do math, read with comprehension, write, have a good vocabulary, etc. This is what schools are supposed to be teaching anyway. If they’re not teaching this, then they’re not doing their jobs.


  11. Anonymous says:

    But it IS a problem; otherwise, it would not be considered a violation in some states, such as Indiana (where it is done, anyway). The tests, themselves, are not that good of a measurement of knowledge. I’ve had some excellent students, whose critical thinking abilities were far above average, score lower than students who would just spit out a pat answer or just performed well on standardized exams. So, how could one get an accurate measurement of both critical thinking abilities(essential at any decent college or university) and true knowledge? That is a problem that has yet to be solved…and, of course, in many areas, the teachers are “graded” by the scores on these flawed exams…Mom


  12. James Pate says:

    I don’t think they’re all that flawed. You do math problems. You comprehend a reading passage (and it’s more than just spitting back what the passage says). You show that you understand what words mean. I mean, that’s what tests measure–what students know. And if students don’t know how to do these things, then the schools aren’t doing a good job.

    But we can go back and forth on this all day, and we’ll probably repeat many of the same points. How would you propose that we improve education? You’ve been involved in it on so many levels–as a school board candidate, as a teacher. In the past, I’ve heard you express thoughts that span the political spectrum–left and right–so I doubt you believe that throwing more money at the problem is not the key. What would you do to ensure that schools are doing their jobs?


  13. Anonymous says:

    Ah, now there’s the rub—the problem is so deep, that there would have to be sweeping national reforms. A national comprehensive teacher education program for one–yes, there is the NTE, but many states will not accept that (NY, FL among them–every time a teacher moves, they have to meet individual “state” requirements, which are not really about education, but about money for the states–and I know former professors who were also very good teachers who CANNOT get a job teaching because they do not have a “teaching” degree!). Focus in teacher education programs on subject matter, or various subjects for elementary education students (elementary ed actually needs its own focus) FIRST, then focus on education credentials post grad. A graduate degree, preferably in subject matter, for middle and high school teachers, before beginning to teach. More teacher incentives for qualified graduates, which means traditional colleges and universities with teacher education programs should require more knowledge and more skills and more (and continued, of course–that is somewhat in place now) education in the subject–such as the education that is required for other professionals, such as physicians and lawyers, and then, like physicians and lawyers, be at the tops of their respective classes for the highest paying positions. Increased mentoring programs and lengthier internships. Waivers of student loans and other incentives for those who choose to teach in “high risk, low retention” areas, as well as higher pay for those teachers. Waivers for qualified and highly trained professionals (such as ex-professors, etc.)to teach without all the expensive and time-consuming hoops. It should always be about quality, and quality comes at a price.
    Then the students. Parental cooperation and discipline should be required, whether those parents be grandparents, aunts, uncles, foster, etc. This means good communication between parents and teachers, not just the “timed” and poorly attended meetings once a year, or the sparsely attended PTO meetings once a month. Smaller classrooms (which would mean more teaching jobs which would be filled if the pay were higher and incentives were in place). As an aside, a good teacher KNOWS which students are “successful” through means other than standardized tests. And, if standardized is the only way to “prove” quality, then they should be standardized in the same way across the board–with equal access and equal say by teachers throughout the social, gender, racial, ethnic, and educational strata, as well as qualified parental input. Which brings us to those who grade the exams…another story, entirely. As they grade, especially the written portions, their standards become increasingly lower. Oh, and yes, really, really RIGID background checks, far more rigid than the ones now in place. All this would cost money, but if we are to stay afloat in a global economy, we need to be able to have truly qualifed and knowlegeable students. That starts with the teacher and in the home. Places such as Japan should NOT be our example, either–a friend who teaches there says that they have many of the same problems we have here.
    This is very simplified, and probably quite controversial, but I am sure we will discuss it at length via telephone. Mom


  14. Rachel says:

    The corporate world receives pay for effectiveness?? In what? Running companies into the ground?


  15. James Pate says:

    That’s true, Rachel, there are a lot of bonuses that go to people who run companies into the ground, but there are also rewards for efficiency.

    Mom, those are good ideas. They focus a lot on the training of teachers. I think there should be an objective way to measure student performance, which is what you talk about. I’m not sure if I buy into the whole “standardized tests are white-oriented” spiel, since the ones I’ve taken include samples from minority literature. Plus, math problems are ethnically neutral.


  16. Anonymous says:

    Student performance is an end product. Quality produces quality. Some content on the exams may not be biased, as in math questions, but exposure and experience-based questions, and how one perceives literary passages and words, often are– even though “minority literature” is “included”. I’ve known WASP teachers (and graders) to give lower grades/scores on analysis papers (or exam analysis) to ethnically diverse students because the student’s perception of a piece of literature did not fit in with a WASP perspective. And, while the standardized tests are “anonymous” as to group, the scoring booklets have pretty rigid guidelines as to how the answers are to be scored. There is very little room for “difference”. Just an opinion…based upon experience, but just an opinion, nonetheless.


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