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Eight Reasons Merit Pay for Teachers is a Bad Idea
Prepared for ETFO by Ben Levin, OISE/UTOctober 2010
There are many ways in which professionals working in public organizations can be paid. Recent discussions in the United States of the idea of ‘merit pay’ have led to some similar discussion in Canada. ‘Merit pay’ here is defined as linking some portion of teachers’ pay to the academic achievement of their students. Many other kinds of pay for performance schemes also exist in other occupations, such as pay based on volume of work (for example doctors or lawyers). Based on an extensive review of research in education and other sectors, this paper argues that linking teachers’ pay to student achievement is not a desirable education policy. Eight reasons are put forward for this view.
It turns out that merit pay, when defined as paying people based on the outcomes of their work, is quite rare. According to Adams and Heywood (2009), various surveys show that only 16 to 30 percent of all workers get any kind of performance pay (which is a much broader category than merit pay as defined above), and only six percent are in ongoing performance pay systems. Further, most of this takes place in sales-related occupations. For example, people in the finance industry are paid on sales results, but that is not necessarily a recommendation, based on recent economic events, for wider application of the idea!
Tradespeople are paid on work completed, not the results of that work. Others are paid on how much of a given task they perform. In many fields, earnings have much to do with reputation but reputation is not the same as a measured outcome.
The points already made regarding measures are only one of the many decisions to be made in any merit pay scheme. Other choices include:
It’s evident that these are very important choices that could have large impacts on how a plan worked and how teachers felt about it. So the concept of ‘merit pay’ can cover many, many very different options with different consequences.
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