Good Dog, Bad Dog: Merit Pay for Teachers

Dog biscuits are not the answer.

By Claudia Felske — So there I was listening to my superintendent explain district initiatives and priorities: we need individualized student learning; we need meaningful technology integration; we need continual improvement for staff and students.

I get it.
I agree.
He’s singing to the choir.

Until I hear that ominous word: “bonus”

Now I’m sweating.
My pulse is quickening.
My toes are tapping.

But, why?  This is not a new topic in education. It’s happening in other districts; it’s all over education journals. I’ve read about it; I’ve talked about it, and I’ve never had particularly strong feelings about it until this meeting, until it entered into my realm of “the possible.”

Until now, I figured merit pay would be a tricky business, but probably worth exploring at this increasingly complex time in education. It makes sense. Pay teachers according to how well they do. It’s what the business world does, right? Besides, maybe I’d actually be paid for all the extra hours I put in. I should be ecstatic. I should be lobbying the state capital for merit pay.

THAT would be my rational reaction.

But my visceral response at that meeting—my pulse, my sweat glands, my moral compass—told me that the notion of teacher bonuses is at odds with my core values, with who I am as a professional, an educator, a human being.

Why?   

1. It’s insulting. When the word was uttered, I felt violated. After a bit of reflection I figured out why. Embedded within the idea of bonuses is the presumption that I don’t do my best, and that I’d do better for $50 or $200 or $1000. This couldn’t be further from my M.O.      I work for purpose, not dollars. I work for students, not checklists.

2. It’s hypocritical. We want students to be life-long learners. We want to foster intrinsically-motivated individuals who want to learn in order to satisfy their natural curiosity, to live richer and more connected lives. We cringe when students ask “Will this be on the test?” before determining if it’s worth their time and effort.

In this vein, many of us (most clearly articulated by Alfie Kohn) feel that our current system is flawed: it conditions students to vie for points instead of learning widely and deeply. We see two extremes in our classrooms: the point-mongers and the disconnected. We yearn to reform this system.

Enter teacher bonuses and merit pay, placing teachers into the same two roles: the point-mongers who grasp at the “to do” list to earn bonuses and the disengaged, (formerly known as highly-effective teachers) demotivated by a system that reduces the art of teaching to a checklist and dollar signs.

3. It won’t work.  Oldest advice in the book: know your audience. The master minds behind merit pay do not know teachers. I don’t know of a single person who went into education for the money. This is self-evident. Contributing. Inspiring. Learning. Making a difference. That’s why people become teachers. Not to make an extra $150 for completing a task or raising a test score.

Students on a conveyor belt. (Pink Floyd’s The Wall, 1982)

4. We are not producing widgets. Whenever the business model is applied to education (which is often the case) we must remind ourselves that we are not producing widgets. We are nurturing human beings in all of their complexity and diversity. When we think back to the most valuable moments in our own education, few of us turn to a fact we memorized, an equation we solved, an essay we wrote. It was a personal conversation we had with a teacher, a mishap turned into a lesson, an inspirational “aha” moment orchestrated by a creative educator.

These moments do not show up on checklists and will not increase by offering bonuses. Their likelihood will decrease as we turn students into data points, as we align widgets on the assembly line, as we strive to meet the criteria on the “bonus’ rubric rather than use our wisdom, experience, and creativity to connect with kids and inspire them to grow, question, and learn. 

Maybe we can take a lesson from King Midas: If we wish for a world where everything we touch turns to gold, if we look at teaching as a means to a bonus, if we see our students as dollar signs, we will destroy their humanity and ours.

1 Response to “Good Dog, Bad Dog: Merit Pay for Teachers”


  1. 1 Joe Dell'Arciprete February 23, 2013 at 8:35 am

    Claudia Felske,
    Today I started researching the idea of merit pay for teachers. I was drawn to this subject for several reasons but I am glad that I stumbled across your thoughts. I have been a teacher for only 5 yrs. I had a life prior to teaching in the corporate world. I was good at it and for the most part enjoyed what I did, but I always wanted to teach. To me it is a vocation. I know I will never be a millionaire, but it’s worth more than that to me. I would like to make more money…I have four children…and God help me one is actually thinking of being a teacher! I told her about your posting and shared with her my hopes for her and the challenges she faces as a teacher. She said, “Dad you love it, Right?” Yes I said…Well then aren’t you feel rich then…Wow! I lost it a little.
    Thanks
    Joe D.

    Like


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