Skip to main content
Elisa Batista's picture

Time magazine recently dedicated a cover to education. Despite my time helping start a Spanish immersion school and writing about education, I found so much of it eye-opening, starting with the controversy around merit pay for teachers.

As we have mentioned here and have heard elsewhere, there is high teacher turnover due to low pay and what Time dubbed "soul-crushing bureaucracy." And as the magazine rightfully pointed out, it is a grievous long-term problem in this country:

"About 3.2 million people teach in U.S. public schools, but, according to projections by economist William Hussar at the National Center for Education Statistics, the nation will need to recruit an additional 2.8 million over the next eight years owing to baby-boomer retirement, growing student enrollment and staff turnover—which is especially rapid among new teachers. Finding and keeping high-quality teachers are key to America's competitiveness as a nation. Recent test results show that U.S. 10th-graders ranked just 17th in science among peers from 30 nations, while in math they placed in the bottom five. Research suggests that a good teacher is the single most important factor in boosting achievement, more important than class size, the dollars spent per student or the quality of textbooks and materials."

School districts across the country are experimenting with ways to recruit and keep teachers, including signing bonuses and housing vouchers (New York City). But what surprised me is the one perk gaining momentum, but seen as the most controversial, is merit pay.

First of all, it is difficult to measure teacher quality. Sen. Barack Obama said he would support merit pay as long as it is not solely based on test scores and not imposed on teachers. Sen. Hillary Clinton said she supports a performance pay system on a schoolwide basis, but not merit pay for individual teachers. The reason for their carefulness on this issue is because the teacher unions do not support merit pay on the premise that it would pit teachers against each other. More from Time:

"The challenge is deciding who deserves the extra cash. Merit-pay movements in the 1920s, '50s and '80s stumbled over just that question, as the perception grew that bonuses were awarded to principals' pets. Charges of favoritism, along with unreliable funding and union opposition, sank such experiments...

In Florida, for instance, one of Governor Jeb Bush's final initiatives before he left office in January 2007 was to push through a merit-pay program that offered a 5% bonus to teachers in the top 25% in each participating district, with selection based at least 50% on how much their students' test scores jumped from one year to the next. Houston had a similar initiative, though without the 25% cap.

Both schemes met with fierce resistance. Teachers rebelled against the notion that a year's worth of instruction could be judged by how students did on a single test on a single day. They objected to the lack of clarity about how teachers of subjects not tested by the state would be assessed. And they railed against a system that pitted one colleague against another in a competition for bonuses. To make matters worse, there were gruesome glitches. In Houston, a newspaper website identified which teachers got bonuses. Later, 99 employees were asked to return about $74,000 in bonus checks issued by mistake. In Florida, one county ran short of bonus funds while another had an embarrassing discrepancy between the number of awards given in predominantly white schools and the number that went to schools with mainly black students. Both Florida and Houston have improved their programs, but local teachers remain wary. 'The new plan doesn't have clear goals,' charges Gayle Fallon, who heads the Houston Federation of Teachers. She fully expects 'all hell to break loose again.'"

I don't see how performance, or merit, pay for teachers is any different than for workers in other professions. But a couple true and tried methods in this article, which I wholeheartedly agree with, are salaries must be higher for all teachers. Unless you graduate with zero debt, who the heck can afford to teach? Also, teachers need more on-the-job training and mentoring. Here is another stat, which stood out to me: "Between a quarter and a third of new teachers quit within their first three years on the job, and as many as 50% leave poor, urban schools within five years," according to Time. Yikes.

But tax payers need to open their minds -- and their wallets -- first for any of this to gain fruition.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of strongly encourages our readers to post comments in response to blog posts. We value diversity of opinions and perspectives. Our goals for this space are to be educational, thought-provoking, and respectful. So we actively moderate comments and we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that undermine these goals. Thanks!