The Paradox of Merit Pay
A recent study from The American Enterprise Institute and The Heritage Foundation compared teacher salaries to their counterparts in the private sector and concluded that teachers deserve even less than what they get. The study has only added to conservatives' clamor for merit pay, and it is understandable to believe that education can be improved by establishing a system of merit pay for teachers. Those who seek to institute such a policy, though, need to consider that merit pay, as it is currently conceived, is not likely to usher in true reform.
Andrew G. Briggs, coauthor of the aforementioned study, suggests that one reason why teachers should not be considered underpaid is the relative lack of rigor of education majors compared to other subjects of study and the relatively low SAT scores of education majors. It would be tempting to simply raise teacher pay and anticipate a similar elevation in the qualifications of those who enter the profession, along with raising standards in teacher preparation at the college level. But, as Briggs recently noted in a C-SPAN appearance, in similar policy situations, promises have been made to accompany pay raises with reforms. While the pay raises materialize, he notes, reform often does not.
Briggs is right to be skeptical of promised reforms. Change cannot be effected in teacher preparation because of the deep entrenchment of the educational establishment. Education courses are indeed less rigorous than other fields. They could be made more rigorous, but the current cadre of professors and university education departments would have to be completely overhauled in order to do so.
The ideological premise of education departments is that knowledge, per se, is not a worthy goal of education; instead, these departments focus on process skills, however dubious. Therefore, they could hardly disseminate knowledge themselves and then follow up such lessons with objective and rigorous assessments. That would simply be hypocritical. Instead, ed school is mostly constructivist sloganeering (students "make meaning," teachers are just "guides," etc.), with the simple requirement that students repeat the slogans. Group work and cooperative learning are championed as the enlightened teaching methods. This accounts for the inflated GPAs which Briggs documents in his research.
This type of teacher preparation can never be rigorous. Furthermore, students willing to embrace and repeat this kind of sloganeering are a self-selecting group who place less value on academic rigor and more on ideological conformity. This is the very demographic group which will eventually repopulate the current crop of education professors, making the possibility of change even more unlikely.
Because the educational establishment itself will not change, it is tempting to turn to merit pay as a mechanism of reform. Mr. Briggs advises that a system be established to reward the best teachers and get rid of the worst. But he has admitted to having no notion as to how merit pay would be instituted.
As per the recent hearings on NCLB in Congress, the conventional ideas about how to institute merit pay generally prescribe 50 percent of the determiners to be teacher-evaluations, and 50 percent to be based on student test scores. Administrators would likely be the ones observing and evaluating teachers, and these evaluations would in turn be used to establish a teacher's "merit."
Principals, it should be noted, also have their degrees in the education field, a field that Briggs has demonstrated is not rigorous. The only difference between teachers and principals in terms of education is that principals have simply had more ed school training. This added schooling only solidifies their biases rather than deepens their expertise. With this in mind, using teacher evaluations to determine teacher pay would not only be wildly subjective, but it would actually exacerbate our poor educational outcomes.
Principals generally evaluate teachers on the extent to which teachers have instituted dubious classroom practices such as group work and "hands-on" learning, staples of ed school doctrine. If a teacher is not teaching in this context, the evaluation will unfailingly be negative, and therefore the teacher would ultimately be deemed to have low merit in the profession. If a teacher is addressing the class as a whole, for example, he would be judged as not being "student-centered" enough. Never mind that this type of instruction has served humanity well enough before "progressives" enlightened us. With an emphasis on process over substance, administrators are blind as to what constitutes real education and learning, as they themselves often lack these virtues. This is evidenced by their credulity of liberal propaganda disguised as professional development.
Given that the ideologies and practices which derive from the educational establishment are the root cause of our educational woes, it hardly makes sense to rely on administrators, who are themselves merely products of the educational establishment, to become change agents and reformers. In their evaluations to determine teachers' merit, they will be judging from the prism of dogmatic "progressive" ideas which represent the status quo. Hence, the very notion of merit pay as a solution to teacher quality is quite a paradox.
Malcolm Unwell is an instructor of English and commentator on matters of education and politics. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.