Falcon and Merit Pay

Last week Kevin Falcon went on record with adding merit pay for teachers as part of his platform for his leadership bid. Seeing as it comes from Falcon, it’s no surprise that I have a few issues with his ideas.

To begin with, I don’t know Falcon’s motives for merit pay. Is it to save money, to get better teaching, or something else? From the reports I’ve seen summarized, research has shown that merit pay does nothing to improve teaching or learning. Making matters worse is the concept that merit pay would at all be tied to standardized test scores, or that better standardized test scores would be achieved if teachers were on merit pay. I’m not clear if Falcon has either of these on his mind but I suspect that they both play a role in his thinking. I think that standardized testing has a valuable role to play in education, but more in terms of specific tests designed for specific purposes and goals relating to policy and research. In terms of ranking students, schools or teachers, standardized testing makes little sense to me.

One of my biggest gripes with merit pay is the myth that this is how the “real world works.” As someone that was a mechanical engineer for 15 years, I think I can offer some insight into this. While merit has some influence on pay scale, my experience is that it lags behind other factors quite significantly. Supply and demand is a much stronger determiner for salary. A specific skillset that is desired but rare will fetch higher pay, regardless of one’s ability to master that skillset. The other factor that greatly influences salary is level of responsibility. The more things you have to do or be responsible for, the more you get paid. One can argue that levels of responsibility are based upon merit, and in some cases this is true. However, “in the real world,” promotions and employment are often products of nepotism, popularity, politicking, negotiating, timing, poor management and poor methodologies for employee evaluation. For teachers, this whole issue is moot since responsibilities are extremely even across the board with flat organizational structures. Falcon would also be surprised to learn that most companies give out annual raises to their employees. Yes Kevin, it’s true. Teachers aren’t the only ones that get paid more just because they’ve been working longer.

Another determiner of salary “in the real world” is based on productivity, which is a type of merit pay. In my experience, a company’s management team is more responsible for productivity than the employees. I guess the education analogy here would be student test scores (productivity), administrators/school board (management) and teachers (employers). This raises an interesting topic about merit pay and education in general vs “the real world.” For example, with a manufacturing environment or service industry, the success of the company is most tightly connected to its leaders. It is very rare that a company sees their pool of employees as being the source of problems. Problems are typically centered around poor management, poor quality control, lack of understanding of the customer or simply bad company policy. Never in my life have I ever heard of a company’s success being tied to a type of merit pay. However, I have seen cases where company success, or lack thereof, is tied to poor remuneration of its employees. So if Falcon is hoping to save a few bucks with merit pay, I think the resulting academic outputs will be the opposite of what people want.

Having said all of this, I’m not entirely against the idea of merit pay. I think I would do quite okay with it on a personal level. As well, there are some valid ideas behind it and I’m sure there are some okay ideas on how to implement it. My main gripes stem from some of the disingenuous ideas and myths behind merit pay, and the negative impression that is put forward about teachers (ie “they aren’t earning their pay”).