Saturday, April 9, 2011

Why Cutting Teacher Salaries and Merit Pay Cannot Co-Exist

There has been a lot of discussion and debate lately about teacher pay (though really, more mud-slinging than debate, from both sides involved). There's talk of "shared sacrifice" and how teachers are overpaid, and blah-de-frickin'-blah. The thing is, nobody wants to pay anybody less money. But the economy warrants such discussions. Okay.

But wait. Weren't we having the same conversations, just a few months ago, about merit pay? How good teachers should be paid more? There are certainly things to be said about both of these things -- cutting teachers' salaries and raising good teachers' salaries -- but let's look at just one big idea of each, with the understanding that neither idea consists of only the one piece I'm going to pull out. But it's a big piece of each of them.

Cutting salaries. One of the big ideas here is that teachers make more than their fair share of the public sector pot, so it makes sense to cut 'em a bit, especially in benefits and retirement, as that's what a lot in the private sector did a few years back (or never had in the first place). Underneath this, though, is the understanding that those who truly want to teach will teach so long as they can afford to do so. So as long as we don't cut too much (though for some, any cut will be too much), we'll still have those passionate teachers. And, don't you know, passionate teachers tend to be the ones more likely to engage their students, and those students will be better off. They may even test better. There's likely research to support this, but I don't have it on hand. The argument remains: cutting teacher pay will not cut our good teachers. They're motivated intrinsically by their own drive to teach and to teach well.

See where I'm going with this?

Merit pay. One of the big ideas here is that teachers who have proven themselves to be more effective (big can of worms there, but that's for another time) deserve to be paid better. Their results are better, they have shown to be more of a master of their craft -- let's reward them. And then, in turn, teachers will strive to become better so they can also earn some of this higher pay.

Wait. Let's rewind a bit here. If teachers are going to strive to become better to achieve a higher income, then that means that we're assuming good teachers are extrinsically motivated. They're going to be motivated by the money more than they are just the intrinsic motivation to teach well. Is this the same group of good teachers that is intrinsically motivated to not leave the profession under a lower salary?

I know teachers, good teachers, who would work harder for more money. They're in the minority. I know teachers, good teachers, who would leave the profession if they were paid less, even if they could survive on the new pay. They're in the minority. Most of us (good teachers) are not going to be severely impacted by changes in the pay scale. What we will be is outraged over being treated like pieces of a puzzle instead of people. We're outraged that our students are treated as mice in a maze, tested over and over and over again, and now it's finally our turn to be outraged on behalf of ourselves. We're outraged that even when we agree to pay cuts, it's not enough, and we need to not be allowed to bargain as a group.

Have the discussions that need to happen. Balance a budget. But treat those who are being tossed in front of the bus with some respect.


  1. I agree. Most of the "good teachers" are driven by what they love to do. They have made a commitment to their subject/program, their school, their students etc, so they will stay teaching as long as they can make a comfortalbe living.

    One point I thought you were going to make (or at least you didn't write but knew we would get it) was that the "good teachers" are the ones that will stay through cuts, but are/can also the ones that should be rewarded for their "proven...effective" results. These teachers care, therefore their students will more likely learn.

    With this, we see that cuts and merit pay cannot co-exist since they effect the same person and, may, be a wash.

    --Eric V.

  2. I'm finding that I'm sort of like Katniss in The Hunger Games. I have ideas, but not the words to express them properly. I need a Peeta to give my speeches.

    So, Eric, while I didn't make that point, there are many I didn't make (and there are lots of holes in my argument, too). I think, though, from what you're saying, I can emphasize my point. It's not that they will be a wash. It's that if they affect the same person, then that person has to be both extrinsically and intrinsically motivated to do a good job. I find that to be a fairly sizable contradiction.