The Baltimore Sun recently reported that Maryland, with leadership from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., intends to offer teachers “financial rewards for those who take on tough assignments and produce gains in test scores.”
The devil is always in the details. However, reviewing news article surfaces several vexing issues, prompting my own hard-hitting questions for which I would like to see answers.
1. The program will allocate only $800,000 for incentives. How much do policymakers believe is necessary to “motivate” teachers to teach for effectively? Why do policymakers believe that small bonuses for gains in test scores will achieve the results they seek?
2. The news articles suggested that the proponents of the plan believe that it “is common sense to reward employees for good performance.” I would agree. However, I wonder why these proponents rarely cite the evidence revealing that ineffective teaching is most often chalked up to lack of preparation (for classes and students taught) or inadequate resources?
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has got it right: "What I find is that there are many teachers who are attracted to schools that are in challenging neighborhoods when they have good leadership," he said. "I think the better incentive for teachers is good and strong leaders. That allows them to use their talents to the fullest where it is the most needed. I have yet to see a merit pay system that looked workable."
This does not mean policymakers should not help craft performance pay plans that reflect the complexity of teaching. However, let’s get real: Paying teachers differently or for performance and merit is not a new educational idea. Efforts from years past—including those in the 1920s, 1950s, and 1980s, failed to resolve a variety of technical and organizational issues. Today’s policymakers and education reformers are likely to repeat the merit pay mistakes of the past by:
• using invalid, untested, or poorly designed measures of teacher effectiveness,
• neglecting to train administrators who could produce useful and trusted data,
• refusing or forgetting to involving teachers in developing plans and programs, and
• ignoring the importance of teamwork in increasing student achievement.
There are some interesting and thoughtful approaches to paying teachers more and differently. But the examples of Florida and Texas, described in the Baltimore Sun article are not good examples at all. They both focus on paying a limited number of teachers a limited reward for individually raising student test scores a few points. Let’s hold policymakers accountable for doing the right thing when it comes to rewarding teachers for what makes a difference for their profession and the students they serve.