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

  • Decouple employee reviews from pay. A separate (but related) problem facing many school districts is the lack of meaningful employee evaluations. Some of this is owing to resources, and perhaps some of it to union resistance, but I would postulate that reform in this area is hampered by the fear of linking reviews to compensation (knowing the latter will be made public). Although I would prefer them to be linked, even if we had to pay all employees on objective and “meaningless” metrics, it would still make a huge difference to implement a strong and meaningful review system that acknowledged great performers, gave regular feedback to all, provided support to improve performance, and ultimately removed poor performing employees from the organization.
  • Sacrifice a little openness. This might be sacrilege for some, but my thesis is that making everyone’s salary public shackles our ability to “act like a business,” while at the same time it does little to promote transparency. We want to be strong stewards of taxpayer dollars and accountable to the public, but does the public really need that level of detail? What if school districts published a range of salaries based on class or career path, or even published the total compensation by school, grade, subject, or some other category? The taxpayer would still know how much money was going to a certain service or program, but not in a way that would disrupt the ability for a school district to implement a meaningful differential pay system. We could preserve disclosure of the salaries of top administrators in a school district (just as public companies disclose compensation of top officers), as they largely have no peers within the organization against which to compare themselves.
  • We must recognize that no system—even in the private sector—is perfect. People will be people, and even in well-designed review and compensation systems, there are a myriad of problems. Some teachers today get upset at others who receive stipends for extra work. There might always be accusations of unfairness. People might still have a good sense of who are the top and lagging performers and have ill feelings toward each other. At the dozen or so private-sector companies I have worked for in my career, I have never witnessed one devoid of these organizational issues. But there is no comparison between these normal issues of organizational dynamics and the wet blanket of full compensation disclosure that we have thrown on top of public enterprises.

    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

    Teacher pay (and how schools manage their employees in general) has perennially been a controversial issue. Much of the criticism of schools’ historical approach to this problem is well deserved. But we must peel back the onion and understand all of the implications of “reform” measures. And it’s not just about the fact that change is hard, and that there is inertia in the current system. Yes, those are true, but we can make changes. However, we must recognize that, as society, we have placed a unique burden on public institutions in the name of transparency.

    It is perfectly reasonable to argue that this is just the price we pay, and that having items like salaries disclosed publicly is of a higher value to the taxpayer than giving the organization greater flexibility in compensation. Some even argue that disclosure requirements should be made stricter—after all, we need to prevent another situation like what happened in Bell, California, don’t we?

    However, it would be intellectually dishonest to suggest that schools can imitate the flexibility that businesses have while retaining the burden we require of our public institutions. Let us have the discussion as to what tradeoffs we’re willing to make.

    Seth Rosenblatt is the president of the San Carlos, Calif., school board, and he is also the president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association. For his day job, he is a strategy and marketing consultant for technology companies.

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