Merit pay just doesn't excite me
Well, it seems like just about everyone else has blogged about Minnesota's merit pay plan for teachers, so since I'm from Minnesota, I suppose I should say something about it, too. The article that so many are blogging about appeared in the New York Times a few days ago. One reason it has taken me this long to do a post on it is that I wasn't aware of it until I checked out Education Wonks the next day. But another reason is that merit pay just doesn't excite me that much.
I want to make it clear that I'm not against merit pay. I understand the valid concerns that some teachers have about it, but there is no perfect way for paying teachers. I doubt very much that a well-thought out merit pay system would be any more flawed than the system most of us use now.
Minnesota's merit pay plan, which is called Q-Comp was explained to our faculty at the beginning of the 2005-06 school year. It sounded very confusing to me, and it would definitely take a lot of work by a staff along with a school board to set it up. The money for Q-Comp is basically free money--teachers who qualify for it would get more money, and nobody would get less--but I think it's fair to say that a faculty would have to really want it in order to set it up. If you want to read about it, you can go to this Minnesota Department of Education website, but I'm warning you: prepare to have your eyes glaze over.
I could be wrong, but I think merit pay is overrated by many of its proponents as an incentive for teachers to do a better job. I should admit that, as of now, I am planning on retiring from my present job in two years, so there's not a lot of reason for me to see a possible merit pay system as a huge incentive. But it isn't just that. Money is nice, and it certainly does motivate, but I think it motivates some people more than others. I believe that people who go into teaching are less motivated by it than people who go into most other professions.
In many professions, when someone goes into them, it is a pretty safe assumption that the amount of money to be made is a primary concern. I worked for a life insurance company for a couple of summers when I was in my early 30s, and money was everything. All measurements were in terms of money. My manager was very motivated by the amount of money he could make, and it was assumed that everyone under him also was. But let's face it--if the amount of money you are going to make is a major concern when you choose a career, and you choose teaching, you must not be very smart.
I think my upbringing might be fairly typical of someone who ends up going into teaching. I grew up in a lower-middle class family. Both of my parents attended college, and it was drilled into me from the time I was very young that I would go to college too. But my parents also drilled into me over and over that the amount of money you end up making isn't important; it's important to do something that will make you happy. My insurance manager might have heard that from his parents, but I doubt that he heard it nearly as often as I did.
It's not that teachers aren't motivated by money at all. You can certainly see that it matters anytime a new contract is negotiated, and I'm sure that if you wave a couple thousand dollars in front of teachers, there are some who will do a better job. I just don't think it's going to make as big a difference as some of our captains of industry think.
I really believe that the way teachers are retained is a much more important factor in the motivation or lack thereof for teachers. I say that because I've seen it, and I've felt it. For at least 20 of the 33 years that I've taught, the school districts I've been a part of have been having financial problems. When that is the case, talk of which teachers are going to get the axe is always in the air. I've seen outstanding young teachers get cut, and I've seen others leave my districts and take jobs in others because they had no job security, and no matter how hard they worked or how good a job they did, they knew they couldn't get it. At the same time, I've seen some veteran teachers go into a coast mode, because they knew they were completely safe. If they were clearly the weakest links in their departments, it didn't matter because they had seniority. I hate to admit it, but on this issue, I think our captains of industry have a very good point.