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A merit-based pay system for BC teachers?

Sandy Hirtz of CEET BC asked this question over at the CEET BC Ning.

"British Columbia Liberal leadership hopeful Kevin Falcon says public school teachers should be paid according to their teaching skills, not their length of service or level of professional training. He thinks a merit-based pay system should be implemented. What do you think?"

Here is my response.

When we think of merit pay, it is an attempt to turn the skills teachers have into a commodity. This works for some other professions because it is easier to attach financial value to what people do.

If you work in a profession where your work has a measurable financial impact, you can determine which of your employees has had the greatest financial impact by looking at various factors, including total sales in a marketing or sales profession, number of cases won and settled in law, etc… So it makes more sense to reward your employees for the good work they’ve put in. If you follow the research Daniel Pink has collected though, you’ll find those rewards don’t help the people in those professions work better, in some cases it actually hinders their profession.

Whether or not merit pay will improve teacher [performance] is a moot question however since there are no obvious financial gains from a teacher who performs well, or at least no gains that one can see in any useful time frame. If we buy the argument that people who are better educated make more money, and that a good teacher leads to better educated students, then over a time-frame of a generation, you could expect to see results if all of your teachers were suddenly better or worse at what they do.

In the context of schools though, this just doesn’t make sense. (Edit =>) We can’t wait a generation to see results and determine if teachers have actually been effective. So instead we are going to use ineffective measures which are not in fact related to the economic impact of good teaching, but are in fact a measure of the "turn them into factory workers" mindset of the 1860s.

However, I don’t actually think that the goal of merit pay is to pay good teachers more, or to bring an business model to education, I think it is actually intended to be used to pay teachers (overall) less. Essentially, the state controls the test, and the measures of how well teachers are doing, which means that what teachers are paid is not up to collective bargaining, but instead up to a bunch of factors controlled largely by the education ministry. I’d never want to cede that much control to an organization which has brought us such beauties as standardized testing, and BCESIS.

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