Thursday, February 20, 2014

Time to weed out bad idea of merit pay

This was written by Jonathan Teghtmeyer who is with the Alberta Teachers` Association. Jonathan tweets here. This post first appeared on the Alberta Teachers` Association website.

by Jonathan Teghtmeyer

I guess it’s that time of year. Much like treating an infestation of dandelions is part and parcel of lawn care in June, it seems like throwing herbicide on the bad idea of merit pay is becoming a regular part of public education maintenance in February.

Around this time last year, Minister of Education Jeff Johnson floated the threat of merit pay in the midst of collective bargaining. He didn’t want it to be part of negotiation; rather, he wanted to discuss it afterwards. After all, why would we negotiate it when he could simply include it as a package of reforms designed to support a concept like teacher excellence?

Minister Johnson isn’t the current flag bearer for the issue, possibly because he has already experienced the backlash from both teachers and the public. This year, the misguided notion is being raised by others.

In the ATA News on January 14, Task Force for Teaching Excellence member and Cold Lake area principal Ron Young said that we need to recognize excellence in teaching. “Whether it is merit pay or enhanced PD opportunities, we must reward the efforts of extraordinary teachers,” he writes. Providing additional PD for those who already apparently excel is a real head- scratcher, so I am left to assume that the more probable suggestion being advanced is merit pay.

The second group promoting merit pay lately is a group representing Canadian CEOs. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) released a report last month entitled Effective Management of Human Capital in Schools, which, among other things, calls for three different forms of merit pay. The first recommendation says that movement on the salary grid should be linked to teacher evaluations—which, by the way, should also include student feedback. The second recommendation is to create “career ladders,” in which different classes of teachers are created with the top tier being given added responsibilities and added pay. The third concept would create financial incentives for teachers to take on the most difficult teaching assignments.

Unfortunately, instead of rightfully dismissing these competition-inspired notions as antithetical to the goals of collaboration espoused by Inspiring Education, Minister Johnson has invited CCCE President John Manley to address his invitational conference on Inspiring Education.

There are so many sound arguments against merit pay (simply visit teachers.ab.ca and search for merit pay) that it is hard to choose one to advance in this editorial. The halls of American education reform are littered with failed and abandoned models. So instead of getting too technical, I think the best way to respond right now is to look at the issue in a very general sense.

The problem with merit pay schemes is that they start with one big faulty assumption: that teachers need to be extrinsically motivated.

To teachers, and most members of the general public, this notion is absurd. The reality is that, by and large, teachers are intrinsically motivated because they want to make a difference. As previous ATA campaigns have aptly communicated, the future is why teachers teach.

Merit pay, therefore, creates unwanted and disastrous side effects by taking intrinsically motivated professionals and compelling them to focus on an external, contrived target. If the target is to be fair, it would need to be objective and measurable; but if it is objective and measurable then it simply would not reflect the complexity of modern teaching practice. Instead, most merit pay schemes have targets that are both unfair and too narrow.

The impact of incentivizing a narrow target is a system full of teachers with blinders on who are so focused on that target that they lose sight of the other important aspects of teachers’ work. Or worse, we get a system that entices people to cheat or step on their colleagues in pursuit of the goal.

Unfortunately, once again we need to weed the garden of public education of this awful nuisance by reinforcing what it is that teachers actually need in order to achieve excellence. Teachers need professional respect and they need appropriate supports for students. Professional respect comes in the form of meaningful professional development, adequate professional time and the freedom to exercise their professional judgment. Supporting students includes smaller class sizes and fully resourced inclusion of students with special needs.

If the task force for teaching excellence is committed to supporting teachers, they will address these issues and ignore bad ideas like merit pay.

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