Merit pay is a good idea–in theory

When all teachers are paid the same, hard work isn’t worth it

There is virtually no other profession in Canada whereby termination due to incompetence is so rarely handed down.

In recent years, the annual average of termination due to poor performance for teachers was just 0.002 per cent Ontario, and zero in many major city boards across the country. Unsurprisingly, teachers’ unions are some of the strongest unions in Canada and besides job security, most express unequivocal support for the pay-for-seniority type wage model. So when British Columbia Liberal leadership candidate Kevin Falcon proposed the idea of merit pay for educators, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation—predictably—was not in favour.

But there is support for the proposition, and it’s easy to see why. The remarkable security enjoyed by teachers across the board and rewards based on amount of time served (not quality of time served) in no way motivates improved performance. Of course, there are teachers who take it upon themselves to seek new challenges and improve their methods of teaching, but those who don’t are rewarded just the same. The logic is backwards for a society that is supposedly meritocratic. When those who strive for excellence and those who just coast along are rewarded just the same, it sends the message that hard work really isn’t worth the effort. That is, unless we find some new form of trade involving intrinsic worth.

The obvious problem with merit pay lies in its application. Is there really a valid way to measure merit? It’s easier in some professions—real estate, for example. But it’s more difficult to measure the efficacy of teaching without employing some sort of standardized testing. These tests are limited still in that students’ scores are often based on a variety of factors (parental involvement, community values, socio-economic status, etc.) and do not necessarily reflect the instructor’s ability to teach the material. The idea is further complicated when you consider that teachers—some of them, at least—are exceptional not for their ability to break down the complexities of learning logarithms, but for their roles as classroom mentors. One of my best teachers once told me that the lessons I’ll learn from taking a look around once in a while will surely outweigh anything I’ll pick up from a book. Of course, that sort of attitude won’t ensure the best standardized test results, but its impact is still valuable. Those sort of intangibles are practically immeasurable.

If Falcon was serious about his proposal (which, based on the amount of political pandering that’s gone on during this campaign, I’d say is doubtful), it would be worth running a pilot campaign in a few schools before overhauling the B.C. education system altogether. Testing should measure improvement in a single class over a single school year—say September to June to see how students have progressed—rather than comparing scores from across the province. And teachers should be assessed for their non-academic contributions to the classroom as well. Just like in other professions, exceptional teachers should be entitled to higher pay, but only if we can properly identify who the exceptional ones are.

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