Educators Focus Attention on Merit Pay’s Glaring Failures

merit pay for teachersPay for performance for teachers has been an unsound idea for decades. In Denver last week, educators put another nail in its coffin.

In the streets, on rally stages, and in marches outside more than 100 Denver schools, more than 3,700 educators delivered a potent message: Enough with Denver’s unreliable, unpredictable bonus-pay system. Teachers and students deserve a fair, transparent, and professional salary schedule that delivers stability to their classrooms.

“Bonuses have not proven effective, and our students are paying the price,” warned Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) President Henry Roman.

Not anymore. When the three-day strike ended, teachers had won a clear 20-step salary schedule that includes a 7 to 11 percent increase in base pay, plus cost of living raises, and the opportunity to earn more through professional development. Their strike had essentially gutted ProComp, a Denver-specific “professional compensation” system that had made teacher pay so unpredictable from year to year that teachers said they couldn’t qualify for mortgages.

Hailed as a ground-breaking national model for merit pay, ProComp was introduced in 2005, after negotiations between the district and Denver union, as a way of getting more money into educators’ hands. But, as the system developed, educators couldn’t predict their pay from year to year, and the size of the bonuses decreased.

Meanwhile, teacher turnover is through the roof as Denver’s educators leave for higher, more predictable pay elsewhere.

“What we got given is a system of Wall Street-style bonuses that mask the erosion of our salaries,” high school math teacher Jeff Buck—the first teacher to sign up for ProComp—told Chalkbeat. “People have finally figured that out. It’s why people are angry.”

DCTA’s furious rebuttal should serve as warning to other school boards or policy makers who want to resurrect, or double down on merit pay. “There is not one school district in the country that is going to look at Denver and think, ‘Oh, I think I’ll try that.’ No. They should have stopped this and changed this years ago, and they didn’t. And this is the result,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García told Chalkbeat, while standing near the picket line last week.

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García addresses a rally for striking teachers in Denver.

What’s Wrong With Merit Pay

Research—and common sense—has turned up a myriad of reasons why merit pay doesn’t work in education. Here are just a few:

  • Merit pay systems assume educators aren’t working as hard or smart as possible, and they need a little extra motivation to get the job done. This is hilarious. If teachers were motivated by pay, they wouldn’t be teachers. Writes retired teacher Peter Greene: “A merit pay system…imagines a world full of teachers who sit at their desk thinking, ‘I have the perfect lesson for teaching pronouns right over there in my filing cabinet—but I’m not going to get it out until someone offers me a bonus.”
  • When it comes to measuring success in schools, policy makers often look at student test scores. (These standardized tests are imperfect measures of student learning, and an even worse measure of teacher performance.) Among other issues, this focus on test scores has led to a narrowing of the curriculum—if it’s not tested, it’s not taught—and a handful of cheating scandals. Also, it overlooks all the things that teachers do for students that never show up on state standardized tests, like teaching art or music or physical education, not to mention mentoring their dreams or sustaining their creativity.
  • Teaching is a profession dependent on a network of teaching professionals, in which an individual student’s learning and academic achievement is gained over time through contact with many different teachers and other educators.
  • Merit pay undermines collaboration and teamwork. It corrupts the culture of a school,” writes education historian Diane Ravitch in the Washington Post. Teachers work best when they work together—say, planning lessons as a grade or department or strategizing as a team over a particular student’s challenges. But merit pay creates a disincentive for teachers to share information and teaching techniques. This is especially true because, with the exception of the wealthiest districts, there is always a limited pool of money for merit pay. Thus, the number-one way teachers learn their craft—learning from their colleagues—is shut down. If you think we have turnover problems in teaching now, wait until new teachers have no one to turn to.

What Works When it Comes to Educator Pay?

It’s not a mystery what works when it comes to educator pay. Teachers must be paid a professional base salary, similar to other professionals. A well-constructed, single salary schedule that provides professional pay at its base, uniform and understandable steps, and as few steps as possible, has many benefits.

For one thing, it promotes equity. It ensures that pay will be based on objective criteria, like experience, rather than, say, gender. It promotes collaboration, instead of competition, among teaching colleagues. And, unlike Denver’s confusing labyrinth system, it’s transparent and predictable. You won’t have to guess in September what your pay will be in June.

For local unions that want to explore alternatives, NEA also supports the NEA Professional Growth Salary Framework (PGSF), which can provide a career ladder for teachers who seek new skills and responsibilities without leaving behind their students. Under this framework, educators can receive pay raises for taking on additional responsibilities, such as mentoring their colleagues, or improving their skills, say, through National Board Certification. To be effective, these career ladder systems must be adequately funded.

PGSF works. A single salary schedule works. And yet, despite the evidence, some policymakers still talk about merit pay and onetime bonuses as if they work, too. This fall, a Florida Education Association (FEA) review of teacher job vacancies found 4,063 job vacancies in the state. Even now, Florida still needs to hire 2,200 teachers. Earlier this month, Florida’s new governor proposed using bonuses to solve the shortage.

It’s not a promising idea. Nearly 40 percent of new teachers in Florida leave their jobs within five years, according to state records—a rate 15 to 20 percent higher than the national average. They need mentors, professional supports, and livable, professional pay.

With an average teacher salary of about $47,000 in 2017, Florida ranks 45th in the U.S. for teacher pay, according to NEA’s 2018 Rankings and Estimates. “A bonus package does nothing to impact teachers being paid 45th in the nation and we know that and the Governor knows that,” said Florida Education Association President Fredrick Ingram.

Teacher Pay Gap Reaches a Record High
teacher payThe overdue national attention on the erosion of teacher salaries across the nation couldn’t come at a more urgent time. According to a new paper by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the teacher pay penalty – the percent by which public school educators are paid less than comparable workers – has reached an all-time high.

Educators Push Teacher Pay Into National Spotlight

The widening pay inequities endured by educators for too long are finally front and center. So are the reckless tax cuts that helped create the crisis. “You’re seeing two factors—the debasement of the teaching profession and the erosion of wages and benefits to the point where educators are rightfully angry,” says economist.