National Public Education

Problems with Merit Pay for Teachers

In my years of teaching I have seen proposals for merit pay come and go.  It is always tempting to suppose that the intensity and vigor of the business world can somehow be transferred to public education.  And it seems quite logical to try to base merit pay rewards on what is, after all, the point of the whole process: the achievement of the students.  What could be more reasonable than to judge the effectiveness of teachers by looking at the test scores of their students?

Yet there are very good reasons why such proposals are rarely, if ever, adopted.  One is that the “product” in this case is not some new item for our shelves, or a better way of making something, but a child.  Children are not things, or ideas, or a form of wealth; they are humans, like us, who can be harmed as well as helped by our actions.  Once you take the possibility of harming the child into account, you have to let go of the idea of merit pay in education.

Why is it, after all, that private schools, with all their freedom to pay their teachers anything they wish, with no interference from unions or state regulators, won’t touch merit pay?  Isn’t it because parents aren’t paying a small fortune so that their children can be, in essence, used by the teachers for their own personal gain?  Who is going to get these merit pay rewards?  Not the fun-loving math teacher who puts on plays using math symbols.  Won’t it be the most cynical, self-centered teacher who, like some character out of “Glengarry/Glen Ross”, knows just how to manipulate the process for his own gain?  Is this who we want for our child’s teacher?  What, in the most general sense, is he teaching them?

The reality is that we don’t just want our children to get good grades.  We want something much more complicated for them.  We want them to grow up, and learn how to love, and work, and find themselves.  Would we ever hire a Little League coach and pay him according to the success of the team?  Or even a high school coach?  (Yes, we pay coaches of professional teams according to their wins, but that’s because they are working with adults, not children.)  We want something much less definable from these people; something that has to do with their overall relationship to our children.  To pay them for anything else would be dangerous to the child.  Would you pay a babysitter by how quickly she got the kids to sleep?  Not a good idea.  The risk that merit pay might actually harm the children makes it a non-starter for schools.

Another reason merit pay doesn’t make sense is that public schools are not businesses; they are public programs.  As such they are supported by the general public, not an individual who is in need of a product or service.  If you go to the cleaner and he does a bad job, fine, you don’t pay him.  He is in this business to make money, so when he fails at it, it is reasonable to withhold that money.  But public programs are not set up to make money.  They are trying to provide a public service, such as safety, garbage pick-up, transportation, or education, that can be best accomplished through collective action.   The whole point of the public sector is that it works at things that are not easily bought by individuals, such as safe streets, or an educated work force.  It doesn’t make sense, then, to treat it like a private business.

The proponents of merit pay are always talking about how the schools need to be more like a company, where productivity and initiative are rewarded.  A more apt comparison, though, would be with the other public programs already in place, such as the police, firemen, public health nurses, etc.  Do any of these use merit pay?  Should we pay a police officer according to the number of tickets he writes, or criminals he catches?  Or a fireman by the number of fires he puts out?  And if we did, what would be the result?  I can hear an old police sergeant telling his colleagues, “You know, the wrong guys always get that thing.”

They are the wrong guys because they are not working for the goals that the program was set up to accomplish: the community betterment that is at the core of any public program.  We pay firemen and policemen a flat rate because we don’t want them worrying about their own pay and their own benefit.  That’s not the job.  The job is to solve some complex community problems that, by definition, cannot be solved through the private sector.  The last thing we want is to encourage them to act like private businessmen, focused on their own gain, not the community’s.

The real question, then, is why do these merit pay proposals keep coming up in public education but not in other public programs.  The answer is because public education is a broken system in this country, and so draws to itself all sorts of outlandish solutions simply because nothing else seems to work.  What makes it broken is, in my view, the decentralized, state-centered nature of it, but that is a discussion for another time.  For now we just have to agree that merit pay will work neither in education in general, nor in public programs in general, and so has no place in the public schools.

Peter Dodington

January 18, 2012