AFT’s Van Meter On Merit Pay

February 10, 2007

Last week I posted this comment after attending a Center for American Progress panel on teacher compensation practices. One of the panelists, Nancy Van Meter of the American Federation of Teachers, had this to say in response:

Before we even get to the question of your question “whether merit pay offers the biggest bang for the buck” — I think we need to ask how much bang for the buck it gets period. Unfortunately, I was very disappointed that the paper we discussed provided no evidence on whether the plans succeeded in attracting and retaining teachers, nor did it provide evidence that it resulted in improved student achievement.

Frankly, I was surprised by the paper’s implicit assumption that public schools can and should draw lessons from the compensation systems of privates and charters…that privates and charters are more successful than publics in raising student achievement and recruiting and retaining more effective, qualified teachers. In fact, as I explained, the evidence from the most recent research shows just the opposite — on average. I don’t dispute that there are high performers in every sector — public, private and charters. I strongly believe we can learn a lot from successful charters and privates — but based on the evidence presented in this paper, not in this area.

As I said at the event, there are scores of public schools where performance pay and skills-and-knowledge-based pay are being developed and implemented — some poorly (see Houston) and some well (see Denver, Cincinnati, Douglas County, CO). Public school districts are more likely to look at what other similar districts are doing successfully than to look at the private Salem Academy or High Tech High charter school because districts have to grapple with issues of scale and replicability in ways that don’t confront private schools or small chains of charter schools.

I think Center for American Progress would do a service for all if in a future paper it explores the best models of redesigned compensation systems regardless of what sector they come from– private, charter, public. As you point out, James, it’s not clear that any of the mechanisms are in place to evaluate the effect of the examples presented in the CAP paper. It will be unfortunate (though not unsurprising) if the push for performance pay/merit pay/etc continues with no evidence from any plans showing improved teacher recruitment and retention; improved instruction or gains in student achievement to back up claims.


One Response to “AFT’s Van Meter On Merit Pay”

  1. Leo Casey Says:


    I want to add a few points to your account of Nancy Van Meter’s analysis, with which I wholeheartedly agree.

    It is important to make a distinction between merit pay and differentiated pay, although these two are often conflated.

    Merit pay is the idea that teachers’ salaries should be determined either by supervisor evaulations of effectiveness [the more common approach] or by student scores on standardized exams [rarer, but on the rise].

    Teacher unionists object to the ‘zero sum game nature’ of all merit pay systems, such that one teachers’ salary can only go up when another’s stays stagnant or even goes down. We believe that good schools are communities of learning, based on strong teamwork among all the educators in the school. Incentive systems that start from laissez-faire market dogmas that incentive can only be individual, with winners AND losers, run against the grain of the creation of excellent schools. The ethos of an excellent school is one of “we are all in this together, and when we win, everyone wins.”

    This objection is particularly relevant to the further problems teacher unionists have with merit pay based on supervisor evaluations. Such evaluations are subjective judgments which in practice have led to favoritism, abuse of office, patronage, and resentment and division among staff. This is particularly the case when one is distiguishing between satisfactory teaching and excellent teaching, where the excellent teacher is rewarded monetarily. It is a different, less value-laden matter to identify teachers who are simply not making it in the classroom.

    Test scores would appear to avoid the problem of subjectivity, but the problem here is that a teacher has control over only a portion of the inputs into a student’s performance on a test [assuming for the moment that the standardized test in question is a valid measure of a student’s knowledge, even though we know in practice that they are often quite flawed.] We know that students living in poverty face many more obstacles in academic achievement, and in general do much more poorly on standardized exams, so using test scores as a measure for teacher salaries would create a massive disincentive for teachers to teach such students, the ones at highest risk for academic failure. It would push our schools in precisely the opposite direction of where we should be going.

    All that having been said, I am among those teacher unionists who believe that it is not sufficient to simply maintain the traditional salary schedules in which teachers are paid only according to their years of experience and their academic background [degrees, numbers of post-secondary credits]. That schedule needs to be maintained — the increase in pay with experience is an absolutely indispensable incentive for the retention of experienced, accomplished teachers — but it should be as a base, to which other differentials could be added.

    Two principles important to unions — fairness/equity and reasonableness — should govern those differentials. First, as a matter of equity, the differentials should in principle be available to every teacher, should she or he obtain the additional knowledge and skills they reward, or take on the additional tasks they compensate. Second, the differentials should be based on rational standards, as close to objective as possible.

    Thus, a differential might be for obtaining National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification, since it is a process for identifying excellent teaching based on rational, rigorous standards, since it does not involve school-based subjective judgments where issues of favoritism and the like come into play, and since it is available to all teachers. Similarly, a differential could be awarded for undertaking professional development in skills important for the school’s mission and work. Differentials could also be based on additional duties and tasks a teacher might take on, such as serving as a mentor of novice teachers, or providing professional development. One could even create a position such as lead teacher, which would combine special skills and knowledge with additional tasks and responsibilities, and pay a differential for teachers who assumed that position.

    There are some well-developed experiments in differential pay where the union and the school district have jointly developed the plan. Perhaps the most famous is the PROCOMP plan in Denver. I would not necessarily agree with every facet of that or other plans, but they lay out some interesting initiatives in which teacher union progressives have taken the lead to develop new and innovative approaches to teacher pay that avoid the dogmas of market approaches.

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