The Continuing Folly of Merit Pay

A couple of days ago I read an article titled  “Consider the Merits of Merit Pay”   in the Detroit News.  Got me a bit steamed, as these writings promoting the wrong things tend to do.  Simply put, the idea of merit pay is a misaligned imposition of a business solution on a public entity.  Why misaligned?  Excellent question.  (What follows is my somewhat simplistic explanation of the misalignment- for a more thorough one, see The Folly of Merit Pay.)

Business is designed to make money via a process of competition.  Education should be designed to create learning via a process of cooperation.

Competition creates a dynamic of “us vs. them.”  This means that resources (information, knowledge, product, etc.) must be protected and hoarded.  Less for them means more for us. We win, they lose.  Learning, on the other hand, requires sharing.  If I, as a teacher, know more (using content knowledge as a resource in this example), I have more to share with my students, which thus benefits us all.  If my teaching peers know more than I do, and I am able to access their knowledge, I become better.  If a culture of cooperation is in place that allows me to access the skills and knowledge of my peers, we all benefit.

With these assumptions stated, it makes it a bit easier to see why the imposition of a system of competition on schools negatively affects kids when the core value of that school system, learning, is foundationally based upon the necessity of cooperation.  If, as a teacher, my pay is dependent upon my ability to be “better” (regardless of the measurement), why share my knowledge and expertise?  It will only hurt my pay. Paul Thomas does an excellent job of analyzing this effect here.

But the purpose of this whole post really is simply to provide a context for Hargreaves and Fullan’s quote on this topic.  The quote comes from the preface of their book, Professional Capital.

“In the United States, state departments of education have committees stacked with economists who are coming up with formulas to pay teachers according to their indvidual performance- especially in relation to their students’ test scores…This strategy has no historcial precedent of success, it flies in the face of psychological resarch indicating theat financial reward only improves perfomance in areas of low-level skill, not in complex jobs like teaching, and it creates perverse incentives for expert teachers to avoid difficult students or challenging classes that might depress their test schores.  At best, performance-related pay will motivate a few teachers while alienating others and neglecting the majority.  I’ts a political fix that will lead to professional folly, and we should steer well clear of it.”  (Italics are mine.)

This is simply another example of economics being extracted from context.  We must begin to see  the ways that a culture is connected to economics, history, tradition.  If economics continues to be the one lens through which we see the world, we are in for some serious trouble ahead.

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2 responses to “The Continuing Folly of Merit Pay

  1. Such a a meritocracy emblazoned on public education is antithetical to our foundational concepts of what a superior, equal opportunity for learning means. Not only for personal development and intellectual growth, but as an arbiter for equality for all Americans. Public education, cast in the mold of collaboration not only provides for increased quality of life, but is the sustaining bedrock for the furtherance of our basic rights and freedoms upon which our democratic republic stands.

  2. Thanks for this post. Merit pay is the bad idea that never dies… which makes it all that more important to make the inherent problems of merit pay transparent for all to see.

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