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Debating the merits of merit pay for teachers
By Chris Tucker |

Should good teachers be paid more than bad teachers?

Put this way, the question of merit pay for teachers seems easy to answer. Of course the capable teacher should receive more money than the inept teacher. To argue otherwise seems contrary to common sense and the basic principles of fairness. Analogies from other fields leap to mind: The salesman who sells more cars makes more money than his co-workers. The assembly-line fitter who turns out more widgets gets noticed, then rewarded. Professional athletes often have some form of “merit pay” built into their contracts, ensuring them extra money for hitting more home runs, gaining more yards or grabbing more rebounds than anyone else.

So why not apply the same sort of performance-based logic to education? Why should teaching be different?

Because, say teachers and teacher representatives, teaching is different from other occupations. And, they argue, no workable system of awarding merit pay has yet been devised.

Nonsense, say administrators and school board members. Merit pay -rewarding quality teachers for quality teaching -can work. It’s an idea whose time must come, and fast.

“I don’t know of a working merit-pay system in the United States, ” says Bob Baker, outgoing president of the Classroom Teachers of Dallas (CTD). “They all have inherent problems. ” In the best of all possible worlds, Baker says, administrators and building principals could be trusted to dole out merit pay to the truly meritorious teacher. But, he says, in the real world of the blackboard jungle, merit pay could lead to “favoritism and cronyism” and might open the door to sexual harassment. Baker believes that merit-pay plans are hopelessly subjective.

“Who evaluates? Who determines who’s merit and who’s not?” Baker asks. “If you do it building by building, you’re going to have 200 different versions of what is merit. But if you do it systemwide, we don’t have an omniscient being who can look down at 6, 000 schoolteachers and rate the virtues of a second-grade art teacher and an eighth-grade social studies teacher. “

Jerry Bartos, a former Dallas Independent School District (DISD) board member, remains a vocal supporter of merit pay. Bartos calls merit pay “the only salvation for public education at a cost we can afford” and dismisses the notion that merit pay cannot be awarded objectively. “It works off the judgment of responsible people, ” Bartos says. “If you spend a little time in a school, you’ll know within a very short time who are the best teachers. ” As for the charges that merit pay would tempt principals to play favorites, Bartos says: “That’s the typical union response. They cite all the reasons not to do something, and that in itself represents backwardness and mediocrity. The [merit pay] system would have some failures, but nothing could come close to the failures we have now. “

Howard Driggers, now serving his first term on the DISD board, also supports the concept of merit pay. “I’m ready for merit pay, assuming we find a plan that would work, ” Driggers says. “When you’ve got 6, 500 employees and nobody is ever turned loose, there has to be a lot of incompetence. “

In Dallas and around the country, the battle lines are being drawn on the issue of merit pay. In its grim report titled “A Nation at Risk, ” the National Commission on Excellence in Education recently called for “performance-based” salaries as one bulwark against that “rising tide of mediocrity” that the commission says threatens our schools. Gov. Mark White, deeply beholden to Texas teachers for their support in his election, opposes merit pay. “The governor does not have a closed mind on the issue, ” a White spokesman says, “but he feels that the teaching profession has other concerns that must be addressed before we move into merit pay”-among them, a hefty pay increase for all teachers. Linus Wright’s merit-pay plan (see sidebar) is just one manifestation of things to come.

LIKE THE elderly housewives who bicker from their back yards, teachers and administrators begin from radically different premises on the subject of merit pay. Those favoring merit pay tend to see the teaching profession as top-heavy with mediocre bunglers in search of a sinecure. These critics say that merit pay would reward the excellent and leave the mediocre swaying in the wind. Good teachers would be attracted to the profession and stay in the profession, while the weak would be forced out in proper Darwinian fashion.

Those opposing merit pay tend to minimize the “incompetence factor” and call for greatly increased salaries for all teachers. Brad Ritter, director of communications for the Texas State Teachers’ Association, believes that education harbors no more incompetents than do the fields of law, medicine or engineering. Ritter says that if teacher salaries were competitive with business and industry, bright, well-qualified people would enter the profession and remain.

Merit pay draws heated opposition from teachers for several reasons. For one, it’s hard to find a teacher who doesn’t think that he or she is underpaid right now. “Salaries for everyone are too low, ” CTD’s Baker says. “Why start talking about paying the few a lot more until we get the overwhelming majority of competent people up to a decent level?” Jerry Bartos disagrees. “How in the world would the present cadre of teachers be inspired to teach better by an across-the-board raise?” he asks. “The answer is, they wouldn’t. ” Bartos says that it would not be “desirable or cost-effective, even if possible, ” to pay all teachers “$30, 000 or so” a year.

UNDER THE current system of teacher payment, the state Legislature sets a base salary that represents the least a teacher can be paid. Current state base pay for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $11, 110 per year, or whatever is left after the tax man takes his chunk. The new teacher with a master’s degree will begin his career at $11, 880. The state also mandates a series of salary steps for teachers as they gain seniority. (Texas has no system of tenure for public school teachers. ) The teacher who devotes 22 years to shaping young minds will be rewarded with a salary of $19, 260; should he earn a master’s degree along the way, he will top out with the princely sum of $21, 100.

Depending on the wealth of the local school district, the teacher’s lot may be slightly improved. Dallas adds almost $4, 000 to the state base figure, so Dallas teachers start at $15, 023 with a bachelor’s degree and $16, 525 with a master’s. Wealthy oil towns such as Odessa do even better by their teachers, starting them at $16, 110 and $16, 880, depending on degrees earned. Impoverished school districts such as Wilmer-Hutchins, however, pay only $1, 500 above the state base figure. Except in cases of almost saintlike dedication, the better teachers naturally will gravitate to the districts that pay something close to a living wage.

That’s the situation as it stands. A merit-pay system would not replace the graduated pay scale; it would supplement the salaries of those teachers deemed superior by certain criteria. Just what those criteria would be – and what effects merit pay would have on teachers – are the main unknowns in the debate.

To illustrate just how tangled is the question of “merit, ” consider a report prepared three years ago by the DISD Personnel Services Department. The department surveyed merit-pay systems across the country and found that the different incentive plans were based on various criteria, some of them alarmingly vague: natural talents, amount and type of responsibility, “nature of one’s expertise, ” degrees held, seniority, ability to “fulfill performance criteria, ” performance of a teacher’s students on standardized tests, evaluation of the teacher (by administrators, fellow teachers, students and the teacher himself) and number of extracurricular assignments undertaken by the teacher.

Some of the criteria used to determine merit pay are hardly controversial. Merit longevity systems, for example, reward teachers for continuing to teach after 15, 20 or 25 years of experience. Granville, Ohio, grants teachers with 25 or more years of service an increase of $150 a year; Ravenna, Michigan, celebrates a teacher’s 16th year with a $200 bonus and yearly increases of $200 up to the 20th year, with a maximum of $1, 000.

Several districts use a “point” system for determining merit pay. In Schenectady, New York, a teacher is awarded points based on how well he fulfills six “perceived teacher roles” (as director of learning, mediator of the culture, link with the community, etc. ) Those adept at directing, mediating and linking may garner $150 to $400 extra per school year, based on their total points.

The student outcome method of allotting merit pay is one of the most controversial and, among teachers, one of the most widely disliked of the proposed systems. Basically, this method uses students’ standardized test scores (on nationwide or districtwide tests) to determine which teachers receive merit pay. The reasoning is simple: If Teacher A’s students score an average of 90 on the tests while Teacher B’s students score only 73, Teacher A is the superior teacher and deserves higher pay. But many teachers doubt the validity of standardized tests, citing the many variables that can affect class performance on a test. Bob Baker believes that Dallas’ mobile student population, especially in the inner-city schools, makes standardized test scores highly unreliable.

“You’re liable to get a kid coming in right before the standardized tests who was not even educated in the DISD, ” Baker says. He also questions whether standardized tests can be devised in all subject areas: “What about tests in art and music? And which kids are we measuring? You let me pick the kids, and I’ll be glad to go that way. ” Baker says that even in so-called “track” classes (in which students are grouped according to ability), the computer giveth and the computer taketh away. “I’ve had numerous supposedly heterogeneous classes which were mostly top kids, and others where they were largely the lower-level kids, ” Baker says. “So that’s not an objective way to look at it either. “

Local schools already use standardized tests for placing students in classes and for evaluating the progress of the overall district. The question of salary aside, many teachers point to the problems already found in such tests. It is widely known that many schools encourage teachers to “teach the test” before students take the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills (TABS), which is intended to measure how well students have mastered the so-called basics of reading comprehension, writing and mathematics. Some teachers devote several class days to prepping students and often give them sample questions that closely resemble TABS questions.

“If teachers knew that their salaries might depend on their students’ test scores, don’t you think more of that would occur?” asks one Dallas English teacher. A Carrollton-Farmers Branch teacher tells of a colleague who prepared his students for one battery of standardized tests for almost a month, then gave them a thinly disguised “practice test” the day before the exam. The results? Not surprisingly, the well-prepped classes scored far higher than most other classes. Surely there are grounds for questioning just what this sort of testing really measures: the long-term learning of students or their ability to stay “crammed” long enough to blacken the right dots?

A Richardson teacher raised another concern about tying a teacher’s merit pay to student test scores: “What about music or literature courses? There are philosophical and aesthetic intangibles in those courses that are far more important than the uses of punctuation. How will these teachers be evaluated by an administrator whose own background may be in coaching track or teaching woodworking?”

Indeed, one of the primary roadblocks to a successful DISD merit-pay plan may be many teachers’ deep-seated beliefs that administrators are not competent to judge teachers’ skills.

Harley Hiscox, former president of the Dallas Federation of Teachers (DFT) and now president of the United Teachers of Dallas (UTD), recalls an “evaluation” he received from a principal while teaching in a California high school. The principal had just one criticism of Hiscox’s performance: He didn’t think a teacher should use the word “lousy” in front of students. “He thought that was very serious, ” Hiscox says. “However, he noted that I had attended all the varsity football games. He said that I had the right spirit, and I was given a new contract. “

Hiscox founded the UTD partly because of a dispute with DFT members over teacher evaluation. He is a staunch believer in testing teachers and has no philosophical objection to a merit-pay plan. But Hiscox says that unless they are carefully designed to prevent arbitrary judgments, merit-pay plans might be damaging to teacher morale. “We don’t want to create a caste system within the faculty between those who receive merit pay and those who don’t, ” he says. “That will just intensify the internal politics of the situation. “

Merit pay can work only after administrators are trained to evaluate teachers objectively, Hiscox says. More than a year ago, Hiscox proposed an evaluation system that was greeted warmly by administrators. His proposal would give each teacher all possible information about each of his or her students -test scores, learning strengths and weaknesses, family background – before each school year begins. Then, Hiscox would have teachers design a learning program for their students. This program would become a kind of “contract” between teachers and administrators. “You would say, ’This kid is right here. Here’s where I think I can take him. ’ And you’d be evaluated on how well you did what you said you would do. ” His-cox’s plan was to provide a workable basis for contract renewal evaluations, but it could easily be modified to serve a merit-pay system.

But the proposal vanished into the bureaucracy. “We built the program and handed it to them, but we’ve never heard any more about it, ” Hiscox says. He learned from his “sources” that principals and old-guard teachers killed the plan. Of the principals, Hiscox says, “They don’t want to be educators. They don’t know anything about education; they want to be administrators. We were asking them to get involved in the education process in depth. If they’re not competent to do that, how in the world are they going to establish a merit-pay system?”

The Hiscox reforms also met with yawns from entrenched veteran teachers, he says. “They set their lesson plans 15 years ago and have no interest in making any changes. They just show up and dust off the leaves of the old notebooks each fall. And that’s not creative teaching in any way, shape or form. “

Hiscox would “enhance the teaching arena” before adopting any merit-pay plan. He believes that administrative interruptions of classes must be sharply reduced and that classroom teachers must be given more disciplinary powers. “Can you really be a good teacher if you’ve got one bad apple in that class and you just can’t get rid of him? We can’t start saying we’re going to pay the bad teachers less and the good teachers more until we know that each teacher, good or bad, has an optimum environment in which to perform. “

Although they agree on little else, Hiscox joins Jerry Bartos in contending that many Dallas teachers are poorly prepared to help young people learn. But Hiscox calls the Bartos solution -merit pay to weed out incompetents-“the simplistic attitude of a guy who looks at the ledger sheet, adds up income and subtracts expenses. These businesspeople on the board say that if a Safeway’s not producing, you shut it down. So if a teacher’s not producing, you get rid of him. But this is a human being, not a sack of groceries, and you have a lot invested in him. Anyway, if you get rid of all the bad teachers, you’re going to have some vacancies. Who are we going to replace them with? All those eager beavers who are great teachers and want to get into a field with no bucks?”

Another problem with merit pay is the logjam that might occur in a school once its quota of merit teachers has been filled. If, say, 10 percent of the faculty is receiving the merit bonus, how will newcomers, however meritorious, join the ranks of the elect? The Wright plan would meet this criticism by stipulating that master teachers reapply and be re-evaluated every three years. Still, what of the master teacher who finds himself dropped from the elite after three years? How will this affect his morale?

For merit pay to work, some rapprochement between cost-conscious administrators and distrustful teachers must be forged. Teachers must be satisfied that the Wright plan is fair and realistic, or each succeeding school board will be deluged with demands to drop merit pay.

Harley Hiscox does not believe that the superintendent’s merit-pay plan will work. He calls the plan “unwieldy” and fears that it will collapse under its own complications. But Hiscox says that the Legislature is committed to merit pay. “No teacherpay bill is going to get out without some kind of competency testing built in, ” he says. “The superintendent’s hell-bent in the same direction. We’re going to get merit pay whether we like it or not. “

Following Wright’s proposals, Hiscox submitted a new plan of his own to the DISD board. Under the Hiscox merit-pay plan, teachers could volunteer to take two exams -one a general competency exam to test their skills in reading, writing and basic math; another to test their expertise in their subject areas. A new salary schedule would be created for those teachers doing well on both exams.

The question of teacher pay causes pulses to pound among educators, administrators and the general public as well. As a profession, teaching stands in a unique relationship with the taxpayers who support the educational system. We spend so much more time with teachers than with doctors or lawyers, those more esteemed (and better paid) professionals. The average person, if lucky, seldom visits a hospital or a court.

Education is a different matter. Our earliest memories involve teachers, and many of those memories are not flattering to their profession. Ask anyone about his school days, and before long you’ll hear horror stories about the third-grade teacher who ate ice cream and read women’s magazines in class or the coach/algebra teacher who diagrammed football plays – not equations-on the chalkboard or the ninth-grade English teacher whose written comments on a theme were almost incoherent or…

Alongside those memories, of course, are equally vivid recollections of dedicated, gifted teachers who gave unstint-ingly of themselves. But when we consider raising taxes to pay teachers a decent salary, which of those former teachers do we remember?

DISD board member Howard Driggers sums up the views of many who would use merit pay both as a carrot and as a stick to encourage – some would say frighten – teachers into better teaching:

“No profession will be held in high esteem by the public unless there is risk init, ” Driggers says. “It has to be hard to getinto, like medicine, or intensely selective,like the Marines wanting a few good men.We need to put both risk and reward intoteaching. “


HOPING TO reduce the number of teachers leaving the DISD for better-paying jobs, Superintendent Linus Wright recently presented the school board and teacher organizations with a restructured compensation plan containing several merit-pay incentives for teachers and schools.

Teacher organizations have been asked to study the plan and suggest improvements. The Wright plan hinges on school board approval and availability of funds.

Some highlights from the three-phase plan:

Phase One would create “career teacher ladders” for teachers, who could be nominated or could nominate themselves for the titles of master teacher and associate master teacher. A candidate who is a full-time teacher with at least two years of continuous service in the DISD must demonstrate academic excellence by taking a standardized proficiency test in his teaching field. In addition, a three-member committee composed of the teacher’s principal, a fellow teacher and an “out-of-the-building peer” would interview parents, students and the candidate and would visit the nominee’s classrooms. Scores from the test and the committee evaluation would be statistically adjusted, totaled and arranged in ranking order. The top 2 percent of candidates would be designated master teachers and would receive annual stipends of $4, 000. The next 3 percent, the associate master teachers, would receive $2, 000 stipends. Those selected would draw for one-, two- or three-year stipends; those drawing a one-or two-year stipend could reapply for a three-year award the next year.

Phase Two would provide for “exemplary individual accomplishment awards” to about 20 teachers annually. These awards would recognize advancement of instructional techniques, significant student achievement or leadership in the profession. Wright would name an 11-mem-ber committee composed of representatives from teacher and administrative organizations, the PTA, students and the business community to identify the exemplary teachers, who would receive an undetermined amount of money.

Phase Three would single out the top 25 percent of DISD schools and reward them for (1) outstanding attendance by students and teachers, and (2) exceptional student achievement as measured on standardized tests. The superintendent’s report stipulates that the test scores must be “significantly above… that which would be expected if the school did no more than… maintain its students’ rates of expected growth. ” Every employee in the chosen schools would receive lump-sum payments during the summer months.

-C. T.