The idea of introducing some form of merit pay for teachers floated by BC Liberal Leadership Candidate, Kevin Falcon, has started a frenzy of political chatter across the country as interest groups, media and commentators weigh in on the pros and cons of this issue.
What’s interesting about an issue like this is that it’s seen by most people as the kind of “divisive” issue that is better left alone. As soon as it comes up, teachers unions from across the country go into hyper-drive to ensure that every newspaper across the country is filled with editorials and comments about how bad this idea is. I take the view that rather than avoiding it, we should meet the matter head on so that we can create a reasonable compromise and move forward.
The most common argument against merit pay for teachers is that there are too many factors that contribute to student success or failure, many of which are completely out of teacher control. It’s usually quickly dismissed as an idea that is too complex with too many unknowns – therefore not worth pursuing. Teachers and union leaders, who are all “experts” in the system – a system which hasn’t changed for their entire careers – assure us it’s the wrong way to go. Most people don’t know better, so we buy it and move on without much thought.
The current reward structure in the education system is based on seniority, which is hugely problematic given Alberta’s quickly aging population. As the profession ages, the attraction and retention of as many new teachers as possible is a key priority and merit pay could be an excellent solution. It’s important to note the staggering fact that 30 per cent of new teachers leave the profession within five years – a clear problem for the industry.
Before I move on, I feel the need to put my views about Alberta Education on the table. It’s abundantly clear that Alberta has one of the most successful education systems in the world. The test scores of Alberta students prove that we are doing many things right. The reason I write this blog post is not to create a division or to suggest that we need to blow our education system up and start from scratch – that’s a ridiculous notion for any public policy idea. I write it because I believe that when a suggestion like this comes up, the issue at the core of the debate is rarely touched on.
Having said that, our world is changing and Alberta is considering a significant update to its education system. I agree with the need to update the system, since the world has and will continue to change very rapidly – we need to ensure that we are ahead of these changes if we are to stay on top. Our children need to learn how to think on their feet, be creative and innovative – not just how to pass a standardized test.
Personally, I see very little value in standardized tests, so I definitely agree with the notion that it’s a bad idea to base merit pay for teachers on those results. Furthermore, teaching children the curriculum is the teachers job – if most of a class fails a standardized test, that teachers abilities and methods need to be closely examined and actions need to be taken. Currently, the preferred action is to shuffle bad teachers from school to school until they just decide to leave the profession – a less than inspiring reality.
But there are other activities, behaviors and attitudes that merit pay can reward, which are worth, at the very least, trying on a pilot project basis.
Merit pay could be given for extracurricular activity, such as helping to coach the school team, putting on the Christmas recital, or volunteering to take the class on its annual trip. As I understand it, doing one of these activities is mandatory for every teacher in every school. What if it wasn’t mandatory and the teachers who wanted to do it had the opportunity to earn a little extra income for their time. This is sure to be appealing to new teachers who may have more energy and enthusiasm.
Some portion of merit pay could be given based on student evaluations – although this particular idea may only be practical in high school or later grades. For example, every June students could be asked to fill out an evaluation. The bottom 5 per cent of teachers could appear before a panel to discuss their evaluation results, or perhaps other teachers would sit in on their classes to evaluate their teaching styles more closely – this would be an important piece, as some unpopular teachers may be effective educators. If five per cent of merit pay is based on these evaluations, a scale can be developed and percentage of merit pay can be based on how a teacher performs relative to their colleagues.
Merit pay could also be based on parent evaluations, peer evaluations amongst teachers, or a principal’s assessment. Merit pay could be given to teachers who adopt new methods or technologies, consistently follow internal communications protocols, or get involved in community initiatives. The point is that the corporate world has very effectively used merit pay to incent behaviors and attitudes, and there are thousands of models that could be utilized to create a teachers merit pay structure that works.
While teachers don’t enter the profession because of the pay, these extra incentives could be what keeps younger teachers interested in the profession for long enough to make a career of it. The administration of such a system would be very simple and objective. Merit pay could be 10 per cent of annual salary and points could be assigned for the make up of that pay – say 3 points for extracurricular activity (what that means would be defined), 3 points from student evaluations, 2 points for peer evaluations and 2 point for the principals assessment – as an example.
Another important notion to put on the table is that merit pay for teachers should be added as a bonus structure to current salaries, not as a way to pay some teachers more than they make now at the expense of other teachers. The public would have to eat this cost – we should consider it an investment in our future.
The resistance to merit pay for teachers has less to do with whether it is a good idea, whether it will produce better or different outcomes, or whether it would be difficult to implement. It has everything to do with union control and ideology – raw power politics.
A union gets its power by controlling a workforce – the most valuable asset in any industry. If there is a hill to die on for any union, it’s on the notion of merit pay because this idea inevitably means that some degree of control over compensation has to be given to “management” or put in other words, taken away from the union. The unions desire to maintain full control over teacher compensation is the only real reason behind such fierce objection to merit pay.
The solutions to most problems in society are in the middle or through compromise. Let’s move past the notion of hard-core right or left wing views and get to the root of the issue. This issue is NOT about reducing union power or control; it’s about the retention of new teachers and creating the best education workforce in the world.
I look forward to your thoughts ….