Fighting Against Merit Pay

Merit pay is a basic reform supported by the vast majority of the public. Those who argue for merit pay think that teachers shouldn’t be paid based on how long they have worked at a school. Instead, good teachers should be paid more, and less effective teachers should be paid less or fired. Since most people have jobs in the private sector where your pay depends on how well you do your job, not how long you’ve worked for a company, this seems like a no-brainer.

Yet teachers unions have long bristled at the notion that some teachers deserve to be paid more than others because of job performance. In 2009, when Florida legislators began the push to replace automatic step raises and tenure with merit pay, the head of the state teachers union said legislators were “punishing and scapegoating teachers, driving experienced and skilled teachers out of the classroom and creating more chaos in Florida public schools.” When the program was finally put into place, the Florida teachers union sued the state, claiming the “constitutional rights” of teachers had “been trampled.” When Gov. Chris Christie suggested initiating similar reforms in New Jersey in 2010, New Jersey teachers unions replied that “his effort is intentionally designed to demean and defund public education.”

Whatever the state, the drumbeat is the same. In Illinois, Chicago union officials argued that “merit pay programs can narrow curricula by encouraging teachers to focus on testing. ‘Standardized test scores tell us way more about the child’s ZIP code than about what that child has learned,’” said the head of the Chicago Teachers Union. And in California, Los Angeles officials can rest easy with reports, like the one from LA Weekly, that the LAUSD “appears to be years away… from possibly adopting a merit pay system.”

The real reason that teachers are fighting against merit pay is that they are uncomfortable with any type of accountability, even if it is couched in positive terms (i.e., raises for good performance) instead of negative terms (i.e., termination of incompetent employees). They realize that allowing teachers to be judged based on their performance means school districts will eventually be able to weed out the bad teachers that unions fight so hard to protect.