Merit pay is a good idea–in theory

When all teachers are paid the same, hard work isn’t worth it


There is virtually no other profession in Canada whereby termination due to incompetence is so rarely handed down.

In recent years, the annual average of termination due to poor performance for teachers was just 0.002 per cent Ontario, and zero in many major city boards across the country. Unsurprisingly, teachers’ unions are some of the strongest unions in Canada and besides job security, most express unequivocal support for the pay-for-seniority type wage model. So when British Columbia Liberal leadership candidate Kevin Falcon proposed the idea of merit pay for educators, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation—predictably—was not in favour.

But there is support for the proposition, and it’s easy to see why. The remarkable security enjoyed by teachers across the board and rewards based on amount of time served (not quality of time served) in no way motivates improved performance. Of course, there are teachers who take it upon themselves to seek new challenges and improve their methods of teaching, but those who don’t are rewarded just the same. The logic is backwards for a society that is supposedly meritocratic. When those who strive for excellence and those who just coast along are rewarded just the same, it sends the message that hard work really isn’t worth the effort. That is, unless we find some new form of trade involving intrinsic worth.

The obvious problem with merit pay lies in its application. Is there really a valid way to measure merit? It’s easier in some professions—real estate, for example. But it’s more difficult to measure the efficacy of teaching without employing some sort of standardized testing. These tests are limited still in that students’ scores are often based on a variety of factors (parental involvement, community values, socio-economic status, etc.) and do not necessarily reflect the instructor’s ability to teach the material. The idea is further complicated when you consider that teachers—some of them, at least—are exceptional not for their ability to break down the complexities of learning logarithms, but for their roles as classroom mentors. One of my best teachers once told me that the lessons I’ll learn from taking a look around once in a while will surely outweigh anything I’ll pick up from a book. Of course, that sort of attitude won’t ensure the best standardized test results, but its impact is still valuable. Those sort of intangibles are practically immeasurable.

If Falcon was serious about his proposal (which, based on the amount of political pandering that’s gone on during this campaign, I’d say is doubtful), it would be worth running a pilot campaign in a few schools before overhauling the B.C. education system altogether. Testing should measure improvement in a single class over a single school year—say September to June to see how students have progressed—rather than comparing scores from across the province. And teachers should be assessed for their non-academic contributions to the classroom as well. Just like in other professions, exceptional teachers should be entitled to higher pay, but only if we can properly identify who the exceptional ones are.


Merit pay is a good idea–in theory

  1. The idea of merit pay is definitely an interesting one. As a teacher, I can’t help but feel that some teachers should no longer be teaching because they are out of practice, refuse change, and can no longer relate to students. As a young teacher, it has been difficult to say the least to find a job over the past 6 years and it is rather defeating when I walk into a school and see teachers way past their prime who students cannot stand getting paid for what they do which often times is nothing more than sitting at the front of the class lecturing or rather sitting in their desk while the students fill out worksheets. I love the idea of merit pay however, as stated above, it would be difficult to assess who would get higher pay and how the teacher would be rated and based on what information. Standardized testing unfortunately has no place in a classroom and does very little in assessing how well a teacher taught. Again, there are other areas that make a great teacher as well including their relationships with students as mentors, creating critical thinkers, their extra time spent in extra curricular activities, etc. Unfortunately all of these things go unnoticed in our current system, except in the student’s minds who see us working our tails off to provide better opportunities for them…it would be interesting to pilot this initiative and see how well it works out…

  2. I am a retired teacher. It always bothered me to see some teachers leave early and empty handed when I generally left late and burdened down with homework. However, merit pay is NOT the answer. There are just way too many variables which can never be properly measured. In the absence of any valid form of merit evaluation, I don’t see an alternative to the current imperfect system.

  3. Merit pay was tried in some Ontario Boards several decades ago and abandoned, precisely because they hadn’t thought through appropriate guidelines for assessing exceptional competence in teaching.

    I think the idea of a pilot program is excellent. Lists of desirable qualities and achievements could be derived from talking to students about their experiences, and particularly about the teachers they felt made a real difference in their lives. Those qualities mentioned in the article and in the previous comment would be a great place to start. Standardized tests are a woefully inadequate way to measure the achievements of students or teachers.

  4. Merit is an interesting concept. Everyone in a school “knows” who the good teachers are, the difficulty is proving it.
    The key to the issue is implementation of an effective evaluation process for all school staff members. Unfortunately, such process are expensive and require training and supervision of the evaluators (principals).
    In BC a teacher might receive an evaluation once every 5 years. This is a process that consumes a considerable amount of principal time and usually results in a lengthy report that just confirms all the things that he or she is doing well and may offer a few soft suggestions for improvement. If by some chance, the report finds the teacher “less than satisfactory”, the union initiates an industrial relations process that will question every aspect of the principal’s report. It is only after a teacher receives 3 such reports that have undergone extensive legal scrutiny, will dismissal be considered.
    One can only imagine the chaos that would ensue if the present system of evaluation was used to determine “merit”.

    Appropriate standardized testing could inform decisions on merit pay, but only if accompanied by a regular and systematic program of teacher evaluation carried out by trained and supervised senior educators. Such a program would need to be mandated by legislation to be exempt from union interference.
    Other aspects of a teacher’s professional life such as extra curricular contributions and professional development should also be considered. Unfortunately these areas are deemed by the BCTF to be optional activities that do not affect a persons ability to teach.
    Finally, I need to say, that in my 36 years in education, the vast majority of teachers that I encountered would be deserving of merit pay.

  5. The new special-purpose teaching universities in BC are struggling with this issue at the moment. These new universities still operate with the old college pay system, which was based on the seniority system employed in public schools. As the article notes, this system allows some instructors to coast along with the absolute mimimum amount of effort, while others remain dedicated to improving their teaching, are actively engaged in their disciplines, and participate in multiple committees. The public is understandably irritated by this complete lack of accountability in the school system, but the inequitable distribution of committee and administrative work and the complete lack of reward for exceptional accomplishment also frustrates many dedicated faculty members. It is thought that the introduction of a merit-based university rank and advancement system would address these problems. Unfortunately, as the article indicates, while the degree of committee/administrative service is fairly easy to assess, teaching effectiveness is incredibly difficult to judge. Standardized testing has its flaws, but at least it can be used in public schools where the curriculum is set by the province. How do you use these tests in universities where there is no such thing as standardized content? Do you judge a professor by the degree of student satisfaction? But won’t that reward the easy markers, and therefore drive faculty to inflate grades? How do we prevent the student evaluation process from degenerating into a popularity contest? These issues largely explain why most universities downplay or ignore teaching while emphasizing research and service when evaluating faculty for tenure and promotion. In the eyes of both the public and the majority of dedicated teachers the idea of merit-based pay is attractive, but to date no one has found a system for objectively assessing teaching performance. Until we come up with such a system, a merit-based pay and promotion system will be impossible to implement in either the public schools or the new teaching universities.

  6. When this item came on the CBC it was thronged by BCTF types -must have put out a call.Why not merit pay? The BCTF (the union) is all against it as only they have a right (they think) to judge these things. My elementary school was in the 30’s when class sizes were typically 30 or more, when teachers who were duds were tosses (not renewed) and when students came out of school pretty well knowing how to write a letter, how to spell and to (probably) know how to draw a map of Africa. The changes started in the 50’s when so-called “new education” was introduced from the US and taken up by BC teachers and the Ministry (which is almost totally staffed by ex-teachers Now the students rarely have homework, can’t spell or write a letter but somehow “absorb” an education with the emphasis on touchy feely. There are some good teachers now, but you can’t tell it from the product.

    Quality of the teacher can be measured by the ability of the product and that is measurable.

  7. I agree with comments regarding standardized tests. I was a teacher for forty years and during that time at various times I would have would looked like a wizard and at others I would have looked hopeless depending on the class composition I happened to have. All that standardized testing would do is increase competition for those classes with eager, motivated students (upper middle class values?). Also one of the most enlightened moves I observed an administrator make was when he was choosing staff for a new, progressive school he chose teachers with a variety of approaches. He recognized that every class is composed of a variety of individuals, some of whom will relate to that teacher and some who won’t. It took no time at all until students recognized the style that suited them and they gravitated to that teacher whenever possible. I realize the present system has it’s drawbacks but, like democracy, it is better than any other system as yet devised.

  8. The Canadian education system is in such a shameful state, starting with the vague and useless provincial Ministry of Education mandates and laughable “studies” – with statistical claims that make even a lay person like me shake my head in wonder – to out-dated methods of teaching and crude forms of measurement that the very suggestion of merit pay is shocking.

    Let’s pay extra for teachers who succeed despite the gross incompetence of the Ministry(s), School Boards and a VERY large proportion of teachers who just don’t care anymore? I hope it hasn’t come to this….

  9. I agree with Mike ….some teachers are just pay receiving parasites within the system ..I too was pissed off watching the same teachers day after day leave at the last bell with no homework /no tests to mark/no projects to evaluate /nothing freedom to watch DVDs all night long ..many high school subjects are just “micket mouse” courses these days ..the kids sign up for them because there is no homework involved just a few inclass projects to complete or just pay someone to do teh out od class ones for you ..the teacher is cool because he /she is lax and allocates the marks like there is no tomorrow ..everyone passes these days because it is almost impossible to fail a student if a teacher passes everyone the front office leaves you alone .. the principals do not want failures because failures makes the school look bad at the Board level so you pass them or the principal will pass them for you at the end of the year have no say in the matter’s high school diploma is a real joke means nothing .. just a piece of paper ..the graduating kids know nothing .. Ontario is boasting about so many kids graduating and not dropping out ..true very true because teachers are not allowed to fail them that is why they stay in school it is nice and warm and cozy ..they would never pass the SATS that they have in the USA to get into college ..
    So is the teacher to be blamed ?? if he is assigned a class of misfits made up of slow learners because English is not their first language , juvie hall court system rejects who MUST be in school or they go to a detention center ,welfare receivers who MUST be in school to get their cheques (they really do not want to be there do they ),behaviour junkies , druggies ,etc, etc do you teach these kids ? So is the teacher at fault if they know nothing at the end of the day ?
    Merit Pay does not work …changing the system to make the student accountable not making the teacher accountable is the answer ..visit a few schools in China ,Singapore ,Hong Kong,Japan etc ..they have the answer that we refuse to accept ..the teacher is the Master of the classroom not the student being the Master of the classroom ..BIG DIFFERENCE !! Learning MUST goes on ..even on the weekends , even during the holidays . teachers go home at 5 to 6 pm and they work on weekends …students MUST attend homework tutorials after school and on weekends and they MUST participate in sports and community relations
    Learning MUST take place !!

  10. If standardized testing is to be the measure of a teacher then which teachers will want to teach the less academic classes? This system would give great paycheques to the International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and honours class teachers while penalizing those who teach kids just as worthy of an education but having different goals and needs. Unworkable.

  11. In each school,- as Don said above- everyone ‘knows’ who the really good teachers are – and who the really bad teachers are. Although there may not be many, the bad teachers can have long lasting effects on their unfortunate students in the form of lower self-esteem, failed classes, higher drop out rates. The principals, vice-principals, administrators know this… but too many them hide in their offices and ignore indicators and complaints. The students and parents are a transient group… ignore them, and they move on after a few years. We need to make administrators more accountable for their schools – (how about merit pay for them?? ) . Maybe a little more focus on principals and administrators would help motivate them to make better choices when it comes to hiring and retaining teachers. Less time spent in their offices and a lot more interaction with students, parents, and teachers could help a lot.

  12. Why do we think that we should choose a career and stay with it for 30-35 years? It is reasonable to expect teachers to stay motivated and enthusiastic about what they are doing for a living given the challenges teachers face on a daily basis. What if future teachers went into the profession thinking I’ll do this for 10, 15, 20 years and stay only as long as I am enjoying it and feel that I am adding value to these young lives. Maybe the pension is more important to some than being effective.

  13. Why not let teachers anonymously rate the performance of their colleagues? It would probably be more accurate than student, admin, or standardized ratings.

    Then the only problem I see is some teachers trying to ensure good ratings from their peers in a dishonest way, but I think that would be an easier problem to solve than trying to assess merit any other way.

  14. If you want to have merit pay for teachers, why not for all provincial government employees i.e. elected officials, civil servants, social workers, and nurses? Why are teachers always singled out? It is because they are the favorite whipping targets of governments!

    As far as some of the above previous comments, what I read is subjective observations made when being a school to identify poor teachers, the use of subjective observations from children in establishing merit pay, and again that Canada’s state of education is a disaster…a subjective observation not based on stated acceptable facts. I would not want a report on me, if I was teacher, and the fate of my level of income or job security to be based on criteria like that. Would anyone??? Think about it!!!

    I have talked with some teachers as they have said that the difference in learning levels and skills can greatly different from one year’s class to the next. They have also stated that school levels and skills can vary widely within a school district so how do you establish a system that is fair and equitable for teachers?

    I always hear about merit pay at the begining of the shool year, in the begining of each new year, at election time, and at political party conventions when electing new leaders so I would like it if this topic could be given a rest.

  15. I believe that merit/performance based compensation is essential. It recognizes both good and bad performer, rewards the good, and perhaps encourages or weeds out the bad. The tough part is how to do it.
    Job performance has so many facets that determining good/bad performance can be an ominous task. So the easy road has been to leave it out of the compensation formula. Some suggest that it should be done by black and white measurements, but this quickly falls down due to complexity of the subject matter. Ultimately it comes down to a value judgement. It is possible to create a scheme that produces a fair and realistic result.
    I had the privilege to be part of a merit compensation scheme for many years that actually worked (not in a teaching environment). The primary components of this scheme were:
    – merit/performance is a significant component of compensation but not the only component
    – merit/performance rating was a value judgement, based on facts and opinions, performed by peers (fellow teachers), superiors (school principal, group leaders, etc), staff (teaching assistants, others), and customers (students)
    – appropriate people were chosen from each class of evaluator for the evaluation team
    – each team member was given an evaluation package with questions pertinent to the job of the person to be evaluated
    – each team member rated the subject person on each question and provided an optional explanation for their rating
    – all the individual ratings were rolled up into an overall rating for the subject person
    Setting up this kind of a merit compensation scheme can be perceived as threatening by staff members anywhere in the job hierarchy, but setting it up is not an ominous task. And with computerization much of the work can be automated and it is not necessary to limit the number of participants to a very small number.
    Making merit/performance pay a component of teachers compensation is my bottom line.

  16. I’ll get right to my point: meritted pay will not increase the quality of teaching for most teachers. The entire issue is politicallized trickory, designed to polarize voting members in our urban and rural communities. The concept seems very straight foward for most so its easy to generate an opinion, but in reality (and one need only google the literature to see) the issue is very complex. Sounds good and easily doable; but implementation is another thing. Looking to the classroom as an example, when I offer incentives for early work completion, the students who typically do well respond and benefit and the ones that typically score lower on assignments lose out or don’t benefit. The gap between those that can and those that can’t begins to widen, and that gap undermines all social progress, including and team dynamic I’ve created. Providing money incentives will more or less do the same for a teaching staff in a school.

    If you have a moment listen to Howard Gardner on TVO’s BigIdeas (archived audio podcast). He and his team researched the questiion of what is “good work”. They interviewd close to 2000 workers across several industries and discovered, what Gardner calls, the “3e’s”: he argues that good work is excellent, engaging, and ethical. In other words, good work in the classroom is professionally developed, means something intrinisically to the worker, and cares about about a greater good. The 3e’s must be aligned in order for good work to be maximized. At any rate, what should a school administration do to optimize the 3e’s? Such questions should be our focus if we want to improve our education system.

  17. So, how about those teachers in rural towns…where you want to be President of every sport and culture club just to keep options open for your students and families. The rural teachers really bind communities together because they, new or experienced, young or old, relize what is needed in the community. Merit pay would be available for all of them. Now, they are being paid in smiles knowing they are able to make a difference to families in the rural areas.
    As well, they enrich their own families.

  18. This analysis neglects to mention that there is merit pay built into the teaching profession. If a teacher improves their QUALIFICATIONS they get paid more. This new proposal for merit pay is really a political ruse for whipping teachers into a teach-to-the-test mentality, 24/7. Public education systems are under constant assualt by election politics. It’s really time we all said NO to this sort of journalism that gives in play.

  19. Merit pay is not the answer to the problem of not being able to remove incompetent teachers. Teachers, for the most part, are not largely motivated by money in the same sense that someone working in the private sector might be, say for instance, a commission based salesperson. Yes, the profession pays a comfortable salary, but the possibility of receiving a few extra dollars at the end of the year is not going to govern many teachers’ overall practices. Teachers are generally a professional and collegial lot who work hard to find, develop and deliver the methods and practices that are in the best interests of the students. The problem mentioned at the outset of the article about the inabiltiy of school boards to remove incompetent teachers from the classroom is due to a rigid bureaucracy and overprotective teachers’ unions. Merit pay is not going to get rid of the incompetent teachers, only a change in the evaluation and dismissal process of teachers will allow that to happen. Fortunately, in my 13 years of teaching in the public system, in schools that have been both near the top and bottom of provincial achievement results, I have encountered very few teachers who, at least in my opinion, should not be teaching.

  20. The lively debate regarding merit pay for teachers has distracted me while I mark assingments on Sunday morning (yes, Sunday morning). The general consensus seems to be merit pay, while it appears to be a good idea, would be very difficult to implement due to the complexity of teaching. Let me add this to the complexity arguement. A unversity professor is not the same as a high school teacher , who is not the same as an elementary teacher. With the elementary system a Grade 8 teacher differs greatly from a kindergarten teacher in methods and approaches to students. A music teacher is different again from an art teacher, a shop teacher, from a p.e. teacher. I could go on and on. The sheer number of types of evaluation is staggering. By the way do we give a teacher who is working at an inner city school the same as a teacher at a rural school? Teaching is so varied in its scope that in order to find a single method of evaluation for a teacher, that method would be so broad that it wouldn’t meet the purpose it was set out for. Merit pay? A pipe dream.

  21. Isn’t it ironic that a profession that is dedicated to evaluating individuals (in this case students) cannot come up with a system to meanfully examine themselves.

  22. If teachers are to be evaluated on merit, then they, as professionals, must clearly define what their jobs and responsibilities will be, as well as those of parents and administration. It should be a contract to which all parties agree. As it is now, teachers, at least in Saskatchewan, are being treated less and less as professionals. They are being told what to teach and how to teach it with compulsory yearly testing of students that takes valuable time away from teaching. Ironically, the new curricula and methods being adopted have little comparative testing that prove the enormous amount of money and time spent will actually lead to better learning outcomes. With every “new” approach, teachers are just expected to learn it and do it, often with little training and most often having to make great sacrifices of personal time. Government departments continue to load more and more compulsory programs onto the school day and expect by magic that it will all be done efficiently. Much of the focus is on social engineering and trying to repair society’s problems, including the lack of parental involvement, hunger, bullying, HIV,lack of physical exercise, etc. rather than teaching reading, writing, math, and science. It is amazing how dedicated and effective most teachers are given the pressures put on them from all sides.

  23. Kristen C., sorry to hear you’re having a hard time finding a teaching job. I guess the silver lining is that once you do find a permanent position, you will have job security. I have to agree that in teaching as well as many other professions it would be great if we could introduce merit pay but it is far too problematic. In occupations like sales or factory work there are definitive measures of performance, but in teaching, in the service sector, in administrative work, etc. it is very tough to evaluate an employees’ merit. The idea is just far too subjective and employees that are relatively lazy are sometimes mistaken as hardworking and vice versa. Not to mention, it is prone to abuse due to favouritism, sexual harassment, etc. etc. In a work environment where merit pay is implemented I might believe I would be better off sleeping with the boss for a raise than working harder.

    I’ve worked in a couple jobs where the boss decided pay raises based on merit, and in jobs where everyone got the same pay raises. For the jobs where they had merit pay, there was very little rhyme or reason to how much employees got paid. Those who were good at standing up for themselves, made close to what the managers made. Those who were too shy to say anything, would be lucky if they got a raise for inflation. I started at one wage, and a month later someone else was hired and started at a lower wage…for what reason, I don’t know. It leads to conflict among employees and general discontent. I was happy to leave both jobs.

    In the jobs I’ve had where pay was not performance based, if anything people worked harder. In my experience when all of us were paid a high wage, we all worked very hard to live up to the boss’ expectations. Of course, the difference between that and the current teaching climate would be that in the back of our minds, we all knew that if we really screwed up, we wouldn’t just get denied a raise but we would be fired.

  24. I also have to say that I wouldn’t necessarily consider students the best judges of who is or isn’t a good teacher, particularly at middle school and high school levels. This is when students start to become a little more independent and students (and parents in many cases) like to blame teachers for their own laziness or bad attitudes. Also I’m sure we all know that kids will rate any teacher badly who disciplines them. Take input from students but at the same time take what they have to say with a grain of salt.

  25. Yes, Kevin Flacon is right. Gut the current public school system, as BC students score only in the top 5 through out the world. That’s terrible. Yes! Put in place merit pay system for teachers and watch our students rise up to those lofty levels where the American students are; at or near the bottom. Considering all the retarded ideas I’ve seen over the last 25 years coming from BC governments, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at yet-one more lame brain idea. And to think the Liberals are going to win another election. Wow!

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