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What's the Merit in Merit Pay?

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What's the Merit in Merit Pay?

Denyale Brown

Lewis University


This paper addresses the pros and cons of a merit pay system for teachers. While there a multitude of variables to consider, I have chosen to focus on four areas of concern: : student performance indicators, teachers' unions support or resistance, financial resources and substantial impact on student and teacher performance. Student performance indicators, namely, state standardized tests, are the primary tool in determining student achievement and therefore would be the marker for teacher success or failure. Teachers' unions have been against merit pay systems for a long time, but recently the tide has changed for some states with unions advocating merit pay. Finances will forever likely be a key factor in school successes and hard core data on the actual impact of student achievement and teacher pay is yet to be seen.

According to Alison Doyle, an About.com contributor and an employment expert in human resources and career development, states, "Merit pay is a pay increase based on goals or achievements set by an employer, rather than a pay rate based on a union contract or a defined pay scale for a position. It is also known as pay for performance. Merit pay typically involves the supervisor meeting with the employee to discuss the employee's work and to award an increase or a bonus based on performance ." This method of employee compensation has been in use in the business world for decades and it apparently works in the business world. As the for field of education...that's another story. Although merit pay for teachers has been piloted and experimented with for the past 40 years (Lewis, 2011), the question still remains. What's the merit in merit pay? Is there truly a benefit? And if so, how does one measure it? There are studies that claim merit pay systems are successful and other studies show no correlation between teacher pay and student achievement, and with that being said, one must consider the greatest variables in the debate: student performance indicators, teachers' unions support or resistance, financial resources and substantial impact on student and teacher performance.

Merit pay systems are primarily based on students' achievements on standardized state tests, and although the debate on racial, socioeconomic and gender fairness of such tests has faded into the background, the facts remain the same. Advanced students will perform better on standardized tests than less advanced students. So does this mean teachers of those advanced students are performing better in the classroom than teachers of the less advanced students? Simply put, no. No matter how earnestly a teacher may try or how phenomenal his or her teach methods are, the bottom line lies with the student on test day. A student's prior knowledge and home support is a big determiner in how they comprehend and answer test questions and without them they are at a great disadvantage. Some students come from homes where there is only one parent or both parents work and are unable to devote the necessary time to academics in the home. Also, many students live without any books (6 of my 24 third graders had access to a dictionary at home), magazines, TV or the Internet in the home. No matter how much you give a child at school for those precious hours, they eventually go home and deal with a multitude deficiencies that have an impact on their academic performance.

Some teachers' unions support merit pay systems. In June of 2007, the teachers' union in Minneapolis [was] cooperating with Minnesota's Republican governor on a plan in which teachers in some schools work with mentors to improve their instruction and get bonuses for raising student achievement (Fleming, 2011). The union's selling point to teachers was that the plan would compensate teachers partly based on classroom performance. Allen Odden, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, who studies teacher compensation states that rewarding teachers with bonuses or raises for improving student achievement, working in lower income schools or teaching subjects that are hard to staff can energize veteran teachers and attract bright rookies to the profession (Dillon 2011). How thoroughly unions will embrace merit pay across the country is yet to be seen. Most unions who are in support of



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