Why teacher merit pay can’t work today–and what can be done about this

Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, and certainly there are companies out there (probably small ones) where everyone knows everyone else’s salary. And even sometimes this information leaks out. And yes, the top earners in publicly traded companies are disclosed. But this is all a small minority.

The ability for any leader to manage his or her team is premised on the concept that he or she can differentially pay each employee without any other employee knowing what others make. Imagine the company “politics” that would ensue if this were not the case. I’ve mentioned this hypothetical scenario to a number of managers and company owners—there wasn’t much that has scared them more. I will concede that often workers in the private sector have a good sense of what their co-workers make, but that is a major difference from knowing what they make. “Wait, I’m better than Johnny, how come he makes more than I do?” The psychology is just too strong for we flawed humans.

Now, let us return to our public schools. Our staff has always had this scenario. Everyone knows what everyone else earns. But, unfortunately, it’s worse than that. The intimate relationship between schools and their “customers” (students, parents) adds another twist to the story. Parents often have a sense of who are the best (and maybe worst) teachers, but they don’t really know. Schools already often have to deal with the difficulty of aggressive parents requesting their child be placed in a certain class, or parents second-guessing their child’s teachers. Imagine if we broadcasted the information on which teachers are best?

If we pay on merit (which I would argue is a good thing to do), we now can easily tell that Ms. Smith is clearly the much better teacher than Mr. Jones, as Ms. Smith makes $80K per year while Mr. Jones only makes $50K per year. Can you picture the stampede of parents into the principal’s office when little Billy or Sally gets assigned to Mr. Jones’s class? This would pit parent against parent, employee against employee, and make it even harder to run an effective school.

For more articles by Seth Rosenblatt, see:

Why education is not like business

The education competition myth

And for more news and opinion on education reform, see:

Beyond ‘Superman’: Leading Responsible School Reform

So, one could say that our current system of paying someone based on his or her longevity—a metric that is both objective and meaningless—is one of the few alternatives that allows us to keep a functional organization while having complete transparency. It’s hard to argue with the metric of how many times the Earth goes around the sun.

Although it is true that some younger teachers resent some of the older ones who they might think are not performing as well as they are, at least they’ve accepted the fact that their lower salary doesn’t reflect on their ability or contribution per se. In an environment where we know how much we each make, any measure that suggests something about my ability versus yours carries that psychological baggage.

But as I said, I don’t like the current way we pay public school employees. So, how do we balance the need for transparency with the need to effectively manage our organizations? There are perhaps a few middle-ground alternatives that, although not perfect on either measure, could work well alone or in combination:

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