Flipping the Script: A New Proposal for Teacher Merit Pay

by Gabriel A. Reich, Assistant Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University, Department of Teaching and Learning.

What makes a school strong? Is it the sum of the work that individuals do to achieve a narrow but measurable goal? Or is the strength of a school more than the sum of its parts? Perhaps, strong schools are those where educators engage in a diverse array of work individually and in concert with others to achieve goals that are valued by education policy makers, and by local communities.

For over a decade, policy makers have taken the former approach. They have defined the problem in our nation’s schools as a lack of concerted effort to raise student achievement test scores. With the diagnoses of widespread malingering, the solution has been to coerce educators to work harder and better, using policy instruments that punish schools for failure to make annual yearly progress (AYP) under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. These policies have failed to garner the results they promised, however. A look at data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP – http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/) indicates that the turn towards high-stakes accountability based on test score data over a decade ago has not had the transformative effect policy makers promised.

Recently, policy makers have added a carrot to NCLB’s stick-based approach, implementing teacher-merit-pay schemes that reward teachers for the “value” they have added to students. In other words, teacher’s merit is based on the test-score gains made by their students (see the RTSJposition on teacher merit pay).

Neither of the approaches mentioned above are based on a sound understanding of what makes a school strong. A new proposal for a system to recognize and reward teachers by University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky, reframes the debate in a powerful way. The foundation of Dr. Smagorinsky’s approach is an understanding that good schools are more than merely the sum of the work done by those who work there. His proposed merit pay system is set up to recognize and reward teachers for the diverse qualities that they bring, while being realistic about the possibility that any one teacher will have all these qualities. They won’t, but good school leaders know that having people on board who can fulfill these various roles is key to having a healthy school. Good school leaders also know that having a healthy school is key to recruiting and retaining the best professionals.

The proposal suggests that teachers be recognized and rewarded for excellence in one or more of the following areas: connecting experiential learning with academic learning, engaging with students outside class, making demonstrable efforts to learn more about teaching, being sensitive to the needs of the school’s population, making school a safe and supportive place, developing programs and curriculum, linking the school to the community, and promoting academic achievement. Each of these areas is briefly described below.

Connecting experiential learning with academic learning

Students clamor for school experiences that connect with the world outside school, especially those that connect with the world of work. Programs that do so effectively make for wonderful media stories, but the teachers who do this work can be marginalized because the courses they teach are not assessed using standardized tests. Under some merit pay systems, teachers’ merit is assessed based on test scores in courses that they did not teach. Assessing teachers on their ability to implement rich experiential learning that connects students to the world outside of school would provide an incentive, and recognition for vocational programs that are crucial for keeping students engaged in school and prepared for life beyond it.

Engaging with students outside class

Schools need teachers who engage with students outside class. These teachers get to know students in ways that they cannot in the classroom. They get to see students who may not shine in class, shine in other contexts. These teachers make schools safer, they talk to students and know what is going on, and can intervene in situations before they get out of control. These teachers get things done, things like the school year book, special events, clubs and sports teams. In short, the things that make schools places that teachers and students want to be in.

Making demonstrable efforts to learn more about teaching

Good, healthy schools, have a culture that supports professional learning. Encouraging and rewarding teachers for engaging with powerful professional learning is crucial to improving the quality of education offered at a particular school. Under this plan, teachers would be rewarded for completing National Board Certification, or obtaining a masters or PhD in their academic discipline. Teachers would also be recognized for internal efforts to improve their practice through professional learning communities, and action research.

Being sensitive to the needs of the school’s population

Accountability policies as they exist today were written and passed by a broad coalition because they promised to hold teachers accountable for ALL students learning the same material.  This approach has two problems, it equates equity with sameness, and it promotes a standardized curriculum that is laden with class and cultural values that are not shared by all students. Thus, for some students, schools reinforce what they experience at home. For other students, schools present very different expectations. Being sensitive to the needs of a particular school’s population should not be seen as codifying the idea that less should be expected from some children. Teachers who make special efforts to reach the children that they work with should be recognized and rewarded.

Making school a safe and supportive place

School climate is an issue that affects the health of an entire institution, including students, staff, teachers and administrators. Unfortunately, too many of our schools are not viewed as safe and supportive by many. The overwhelming ethos of competition, with winners and losers defined largely by performance on standardized exams, has undermined the role of schools as places where students are free to explore, to ask questions, to make mistakes and learn from them. For many low-income students, school is characterized by strict, and largely ineffective disciplinary procedures. Keeping schools safe and supportive is the job of the entire institution, not any one group within it. Teachers who expend extra effort to ensure that their schools are safe and supportive should be recognized and rewarded for these efforts. They help to build trust between students, administrators, parents, teachers and staff.

Developing programs and curriculum

In many schools, teachers have lost the autonomy to develop programs and curricula. This is a key area, however, for attracting and keeping really good teachers. They want to learn more, they want to make changes from year to year, they enjoy talking about curriculum, and they want personal autonomy in their work. In terms of the overall health of a school, it may be the collaborative efforts at program and curriculum development that have the greatest positive effects. I learned how to teach in a Professional Learning Community. These are internal, and inexpensive to run, and they are the best way to build the professional capacity of a school.

Linking the school to the community

I remember reading about the importance of making schools sites for community engagement when I was a doctoral student. I was doing  research on the issue and walking the stacks at the library when I found a pamphlet from 1932 whose title was something like: Schools as Community Centers. It advocated for the use of school buildings as community centers after the hours of instruction. Almost 100 years later, this still sounds like a novel idea. Linking the school to the community makes schools safe places, places that parents and kids can trust. Teachers can and should be part of that transformation, and their work towards it should be recognized and rewarded. Today, much of this work is neither recognized, nor rewarded, and it is done by teacher-volunteers after their contracted hours.

Promoting academic achievement

Everyone wants to promote academic achievement, but few can agree on what that looks like. Standardized tests have been adopted as the measure of academic achievement, despite evidence that the tests currently in use measure a very limited array of student skills and knowledge. In addition, the state-of-the-art in educational measurement is no-where near good enough to significantly widen what is measured. Thus, promotion of academic achievement for the purposes of assigning merit pay should use multiple measures of such achievement. If we want to get serious about “data driven instruction” we will need to have a more nuanced understanding of what test data mean, and more autonomy for teachers in regards to interpreting these data and devising plans to address needs.


We have constructed policies that homogenize education at a mediocre level. These policies may have forced some grossly incompetent teachers to improve, but they have also stymied the efforts of excellent teachers. Dr. Smagorinsky’s proposal addresses this problem in a very smart way. It is focused on making schools places where good teachers are encouraged and rewarded for striving for greatness. As such, I believe it represents a move towards balancing accountability with autonomy, and skepticism with trust.


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