Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How Much Are Teachers Worth?

The idea of rewarding quality work is not a new concept in our society. The idea of making these rewards monetary in nature is also not a ground-breaking practice. Many people across the nation actually rely on these types of rewards in the form of bonuses and commissions to supplement their base income. Now take this same concept of monetary rewards and apply it to the occupation of teaching and you have a lively debate on your hands. Merit pay has again become one of the more hotly contested issues surrounding educational reform. So the question is why is merit pay so controversial in a society driven by money?
The concept of merit pay is not a new concept. It was a hot topic in the 1980s but that does not mean that the issue has ever been settled. This month Secretary of Education Arne Duncan petitioned the Nation Education Association (NEA) to reverse its long standing opposition to the idea. He stressed that teachers would not be judged solely on student test scores but that student progress would be the main factor in determining teacher success. Duncan also asserted that becoming more effective teachers should be on the forefront of every teacher’s agenda and that merit pay was a tool for achieving this goal (Bruce, 2009).
The idea of merit pay was largely unpopular among teachers and ultimately unsuccessful in the 1980s but there is evidence that the issue was first introduced thirty years earlier in the 1950s. Duncan’s speech is a sign that merit pay may actually be gaining a support base among educational reformers and current teachers. In an atmosphere where budgets are being slashed and money is tight it is imperative that money be well spent. For merit pay to gain in popularity there is a need for evidence that it is an effective method of supporting hard working teachers and improving the quality of instruction for our students. Luckily, there are a few school districts and even states that have implemented some trials programs. One example of a city that has tried instituting a merit pay system is Minneapolis. The jury is still out as far as quantitative proof that the system works but many union members and teachers in Minnesota have embraced the new system. The incentive cost approximately $86 million to start and has expanded to cover numerous school districts in Minnesota, in addition to the city of Minneapolis (Dillon, 2007).
Some of the assumed benefits of these programs are attracting knowledgeable and effective individuals to the teaching profession. University of Wisconsin professor, Allan Ogden, says that offering higher pay to teachers who work in low-income areas, have high student achievement rates, or who teach high demand subjects can promote a vitalizing effect in a school. This effect is the result of attracting talented “rookies” to the profession and invigorating veterans, which in turn increases their effectiveness (Dillon, 2007). Some supporters of merit pay also allege that teachers are already underpaid. They believe merit pay will help make the teaching profession a more competitive job market. Other supporters focus on the fact that our nation is in the middle of an educational crisis. It is clear to see that many schools are not meeting standards and have low student achievement and educational attainment. There is much debate over how to alleviate the challenges that our schools face and how to provide a comprehensive, exceptional education to all students in this country. By implementing merit pay we may be able to improve the quality of the educators that are in our nation’s classrooms and, in turn, improve the quality of education that our children are receiving.
While there has been growing support for merit pay there are still many teachers, school officials and politicians that staunchly oppose this idea. The criticisms voiced by these groups sometimes closely echo criticisms of standardized testing. Vivian Troen and Katherine Boles, educators at Brandeis and Harvard Universities respectively, allege that a merit pay system ruins the creativity and flexibility necessary for valuable teaching. They speak about the harms of drills and rote memorization that often dominate classrooms with teachers receiving merit pay because they often produce good test scores but not authentic learning and knowledge formation (2005). Also as stated earlier many schools are experiencing a shortage of money, therefore, investing in an expensive endeavor, like merit pay, without proof that the concept works can unnecessarily tax our school districts and put them under further financial strain without reason. Also this system would most likely create a more competitive and possibly hostile working environment between teachers. This could prevent the sharing of ideas and cooperation of teachers which are often integral to a school’s success. Lastly, and most importantly, it is extremely difficult to create a system that accurately assesses effective teaching and student progress. If it isn’t possible to create a system that accurately assesses these elements, then it is impossible to reward teachers differentially.
So the question remains “How much is a teacher worth?” or maybe more appropriately “How do we determine the worth of a teacher in terms of monetary compensation?” As a teacher, I sometimes do feel that the profession can be under respected and underpaid. There are elements of merit pay that I think should be explored in order to attract more skilled and talented individuals to the profession. On the other hand, I do not think that we have been able to come to a consensus as society on the best way to assess student progress and achievement. If we cannot evaluate student progress and achievement, then how can we possibly assess teacher effectiveness and achievement? I believe that until we can develop a fair and accurate way to assess student and teacher achievement, merit pay cannot be effective in promoting success in the classroom. I also believe that it is a worthwhile endeavor to explore and that brainstorming, research, and experimentation may one day provide a system worth implementing.

Boles, Katherine C. & Troen Vivian (2005, Sept, 28). How 'merit pay' Squelches Teaching . The Boston Globe, Retrieved July 09, 2009, from http://www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/articles/2005/09/28/how_merit_pay_squelches_teaching/

Bruce, Mary (2009, July, 2). Secretary Arne Stresses Merit Pay to Teachers Union. ABC News, Retrieved July 10, 2009, from http://www.abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=7991577&page=1

Dillon, Sam (2007, June, 18). Long Reviled, Merit Pay Gains Among Teachers. New York Times, Retrieved July 7 2009, from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/18/education/18pay.html

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