Fair Merit Pay Schemes, Part VIII

In discussing teacher merit pay in Australia, many commentators take the chance to beat up on teacher unions for opposing it (either directly, or indirectly by dressing up pay-for-credentials schemes as merit pay). I’ve generally tried to avoid such an approach, partly because I think merit pay is extremely difficult from a teacher union leader perspective.

In the US, the best writing on this issue has come from Andrew Rotherham at Ed Sector, who has run a number of conferences to bring together union leaders and merit pay advocates. His latest paper is now up. Here’s a quote from the conclusion:

In 2004, Sandra Feldman, the late President of the American Federation of Teachers said, “To pay teachers a lot more, and a lot sooner in their careers, we would have to redesign the compensation system. Along with significantly raising pay across the board, on top of the current schedules, we would have to find a way to reward different roles, responsibilities, knowledge, skills and, yes, results.”

If that sounds forward-looking, that’s because it was and still is today. Despite a great deal of debate and some innovation, there is still more heat than light around performance-based pay or differentiated pay for teachers. Improvements in data, new initiatives, and even the support of some local teachers’ unions for innovating with teacher pay, have paradoxically raised the stakes for teachers’ unions in this debate. No longer can they easily stand on the rhetorical position that they’d support new ideas if only they were well-designed and fair. Such ideas are now within reach.

Teachers’ union leaders are thinking about these issues and recognize that younger teachers may want different things than veterans. Yet the dynamics of leading an organization mean that leaders are cross-pressured between demands for change, legitimate concerns about what is in the best interest of their members and the organization, and, as the Denver experience illustrates, disagreement within their ranks.

Update, March 10: Rotherham has a punchy little oped on this topic in today’s NYT.

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7 Responses to Fair Merit Pay Schemes, Part VIII

  1. Patrick says:

    Um, whereas previously I criticised them for blindly resisting change because they feared it, now I should criticise them for avowedly resisting change because they are too lazy?

    Or can I just stick to calling them captured ideologues whose positions can be entirely explained by their desire to preserve their own power?

  2. Jennifer Jacoby says:

    Isn’t it a bit of the chicken and the egg problem? If teacher’s made more money, you would get more talent and the results at schools would be better. I always thought about being a teacher (my mom is a teacher) but the low salary always discouraged me. The US salaries for teachers are so low you either have to be a saint or unable to find better paying job.

  3. Andrew Leigh says:

    Jen, your point about average pay is important, but merit pay is also about pay dispersion.

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  5. Problem is that much of the popular conservative commentary on teaching seems to assume that all we need are Shakespeare-loving ex-marines with unlimited charisma who will work for nothing. Educational innovations, from web-based learning to merit pay, are often seen as ways to save money. In fact that require more money to be spent more intelligently. What chance of state govts doing this? Not much they see the public sector become a residual system for those marooned in Labor’s rotten boroughs.

  6. Patrick says:


    I am happy to pay teachers more. But I would like to see schools exposed to competition, and the more the better.

    I do think that competition would deliver (public) cost-free gains, although I also think that real competition would lead to significantly greater (but mainly private) expenditure.

  7. conrad says:

    Patrick — schools already have competition. You can send your kids wherever, and if the shitty schools don’t get enough pupils, then they need to sack staff (no fun in anyone’s book). In in addition, the competition at the good end of town is evidentally so easy, parents compete to get into the schools rather than vice versa, where schools would compete for students — so it is hard to see how adding competition is going to help there. I’m therefore wondering what type of competition you want and whom should be the targets?

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