Merit Pay for Teachers?

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 ….


8 thoughts on “Merit Pay for Teachers?

  1. I am glad that you have framed the issue of merit pay as being one of teacher retention and not as a way to improve student outcomes. Teacher retention is a problem that will only get worse over the next decade and we should be having discussions about any and all possible solutions. However, when discussing solutions, we need to explore the problem. Why are so many teachers leaving? This has been studied extensively, and it doesn’t come down to money. I believe that teachers in Alberta are the highest paid in North America already (but don’t quote me on it!). According to a University of Alberta study, teachers “leave their teaching jobs for reasons that are often related to a lack of support in their working environments, and a feeling of burning out.” According to the ATA, the number one reason is “the workload of excessive paperwork and non-instructional responsibilities.”

    You mistakenly believe that because new teachers have more enthusiasm and energy that they would prefer to do more extra-curricular activities for extra pay. It’s the newest teachers that spend the most time trying to figure out how to be teachers as they haven’t discovered how to deal with all the commitments efficiently. The experienced teachers actually have more time to devote to extra-curricular activities as they’ve already developed a teaching process that works for them. If the new teachers felt they should take on additional responsibilities for a bigger bonus, it could actually lead to burn out that much more quickly. We also don’t want to incentivize teachers to focus more on extra-curricular activities than their teaching responsibilities (although I doubt with your model that this would be the case).

    As for the remainder of the bonus being based on assessments from different sources, again, it’s new teachers that may suffer the most. Most teachers will agree that they were not very good teachers during their first few years. This has been well documented, which is why pay rises with seniority. I agree that teachers need to be assessed on an annual basis, but it should be for the purpose of helping them to improve, not to determine a bonus. These new teachers who are putting blood, sweat and tears into their class, yet still failing to get a bonus will become so demoralized that they will definitely leave.

    The issue of cost is another hurdle. With staffing costs being the majority of the education budget, and if most teachers get a bonus of some sort, the costs would be huge. I, too, believe that education is an investment, but the government has proven unwilling to even consider any increase to the education budget. And, frankly, with many schools not being up to code due to the lack of capital funding, I’m not sure that teacher bonuses would be the best use of dollars even if an infusion were given.

    However, like you said, you’ll never know until you try. Perhaps you could get the government to give you a grant and ask for volunteers among first and second year teachers to try it out and compare the attrition rate to similar teachers who did not participate.

    Like I said, I’m glad you framed it around teacher retention. If you had framed it around “It’s just more fair to pay harder-working, better teachers more,” it would have been a little more difficult to argue (but not impossible!) 🙂

    1. Hi Trina – 3 months later, but I said I would respond to your comment.

      First off, I agree with you that education is underfunded and that we need to put more money into the system. I also agree that this money would not be spent well by going into teacher salaries.

      I hope that when the next round of negotiations come up with the ATA you join me in publically asking teachers to forgo any wage increases for 5 years. Last time the teachers got a deal that was WAY too sweet and the rest of the system is seriously suffering as a result. If teachers don’t leave because of the money then they should be more than willing to forgo increases for 5 years so that we can get them the resources they need to succeed.

      I didn’t write the blog because i believe we should pay teacehers merit pay. The purpose of the blog was to express that if we wanted to it would be easy to do. My greater point is that its the teachers union that will resist such measures at all costs becuase it goes against everything a union stands for.

      You said in your comment that “according to the ATA” … I would be very interested what an independent study would find and I also wonder if we were coming into a negotiating year if what the ATA would find would be different.

      That’s the problem – the ATA gets a deal for the teachers that never should have been given (that’s the government’s fault) and then they go after the government for more resources in the classrooms. So the goverment fights twice on education and in my opinion the students are the loosers.

      Anyways, like i said – i’m really not that hung up on how we pay teachers – I just really think we need to approach the system differently and need to be open to trying new things.


  2. As a recent graduate and a current supply teacher with the CBE the idea of merit pay for teachers that come solely from student marks could be one of the largest grey areas in the educational system. There are FAR too many variables for every single student for it work effectively, but the idea suggested by the writer of having merit for putting in extra work whether it be sports, clubs, boards/committees that some many teachers dedicate hours and hours of non teaching time to is staggering. This is time that not enough teachers are given credit for by the general public. I know every single teacher will tell you they didn’t become a teacher for the money but lets face it, its the reason anyone works no matter what your job may be respectively. We work long hours to pay bills, and every other cost life throws our way. In most other industries particularly in the business world its very common for employees to receive performance bonuses, why not use this suggested idea in a similar manner if only on an interim basis.

  3. Peter:

    I think that you might find this video interesting on this subject. As a business owner of one of the fastest growing companies in Alberta for the last five years, I certainly have an opinion on incentive pay, and we use it in some ways effectively. But when you asked my personal opinion on the subject of merit pay for teachers the other day, I had watched this a couple of days earlier.

    I think it says a lot about what motivates people, and I don’t always think it’s money. When I worked in a more industrial business where creativity was not as desired as productivity, we effectively used piecework based payment systems. These worked.

    With teaching, and teachers, I still don’t believe that “merit pay” will change learner outcomes (the reason I assume you raise the issue).

    Recognizing teachers, and incenting extra-curricular activity is another thing altogether, and I think you have raised an interesting point.

  4. Peter :
    Your apparently limitless antipathy to unions has become a serious blind spot which mars an otherwise interesting post.
    You claim that unions are interested only in “control and ideology – raw power politics”, then state “A union gets its power by controlling the workforce.” Having tossed those little grenades, you suggest forgetting hard-core political views.

    The union is not interested in “controlling the workforce” – the union is the workforce! In the case of teachers, the union is the teachers. They are not interested in “maintaining full control over teacher compensation” – they do not have, and never had full control. They are one party to an agreement. The other party is the school board. These two parties must mutually agree on a contract. Neither side has the unilateral right to decide on compensation.

    Mr. LaBossiere is correct – study after study has shown that money as the sole motivator is doomed to failure. But denigrating the workforce because they chose to act collectively, needlessly insulting them and claiming that they see them selves as “experts in a system that hasn’t changed their entire carreer”, misleading the public by suggesting that currently the reward systems is based solely on seniority, suggesting that the leaders they have selected are simply interest in power and control can only serve to lower morale. If you are correct about the turn over rate, right wing anti-union posturing is not the answer.

    Having said that, some of your ideas are worthy of joint investigation.

    For some real life examples of what you suggest, have a look at the contract in place with the Nova Scotia Nurses Union.

    Starting on page 125 is a list of premiums and variable pay – for example, additional payments are made based on education, but certain points are awarded for chairing committees, Professional Association involvement, publishing in peer reviewed journals, accepting leadership roles, etc. Enough points leads to some additional payments.

    This sort of system, modified for the education sector could be considered – but both the employer and the union would need to discuss them in detail and reach an agreement.

  5. David:

    Thanks for your post – as you know I always appreciate your point of view!

    Hyperbole aside, I understand that unions play an important role in society and I do not advocate for their elimination. However, I firmly believe that as a society we need to have a very public debate about the role of public sector unions in Canada and we need to ask ourselves if we have acheived the right balance.

    So far, the only public discussion that seems to permeate is about the role of the evil corporation and government’s inability to stop it. As you can imagine, this debate sounds like hyperbole and rhetoric to me.

    I believe the answer is always in the middle somewhere and the quicker we lay all of our cards on the table, the quicker we can get down to the real issues.

    I wrote this particular blog with hyperbole because I wanted it to get some attention. Based on the searches about uionization that are leading people to my posts, I believe that strategy is working. I also sensationalized a bit because this is the first and last time I will write about this particular topic and I wanted to have some fun – I am not a politician or journalist – I’m a guy with an opinion who gets pleasure from writing.

    The first issue that needs to be addressed with respect to the correct balance for Canada is mandatory union dues – you know my view on this issue well. The lack of balance on this particular topic is obvious.

    I give credit to the Nova Scotia nurses for giving merit pay a chance, but suspect they didn’t come up with the idea themselves … it likely resulted from intense bargaining. Having said that, I give the United Nurses of Alberta a lot of credit for reaching an excellent deal with the Alberta Government – nursing unions seem to be leading other public sectors unions in Canada on their willingness to work proactively with governments on areas of mutual benefit. However, in my opinion, in the case of nurses, the options seems to be give in during collective bargaining or move over for private health care delivery.

    Your point about the Nova Scotia nurses only strengthens my point that merit pay for teachers could easily be implemented if the will existed. It’s my assertion that public sectors unions do everything they can to keep the will to change these things down.

    I want to address one statement you made specifically, whcih is: “The union is not interested in “controlling the workforce” – the union is the workforce! In the case of teachers, the union is the teachers.”

    If that is the case and the unions trully do speak for the teachers, then why does the teachers union insist that teachers not participate in the discussion? David, you represent the nursing union – are you a nurse? Why don’t you step aside and let the nurses publically speak for themselves? I can’t help but think its to maintain an element of control …

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts David – I look foward to more dialogue in the future.


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