Why teachers object to merit pay

Merit pay for teachers would appear to be on par with the 256K computer chip, a great idea that is bound to make society more productive. Who could oppose such a patently simple idea - rewarding those who excel in their profession? Well, teachers do, and many of them object fervently. The reasons: politics, money, and job security.

Many of the objections to merit pay are decidedly political. President Reagan's support of the concept has ignited a knee-jerk response from teacher union professionals and politicians who do not wish the President to be seen as a friend of education, especially after he rode into office on a pledge to abolish the Department of Education and to curtail sharply federal involvement in education.

However, the President's support of merit pay is perfectly consistent with his campaign pledges. Merit pay would not necessarily mean greater public, especially federal, expenditures on education. It is also in line with his original supply-side principles of giving people incentives to work harder and produce what buyers want. To the extent that teachers are induced, through a restructuring of their pay schedule, to work harder, more ''education'' (measured, perhaps, by Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores of graduating seniors) can be provided with the same education budget. Indeed, given the recession-induced fiscal problems facing many states, this also means the same ''education'' can be purchased by the public with fewer tax dollars, an implication that does not escape alert teachers.

Few teachers are likely to support any innovative pay concept that threatens to reduce the education pie. They will understandably view the proposal as a backdoor attempt to wring the inefficiencies and monopoly rents out of education , which have been meticulously cultivated through the years as teachers have wrestled education choices away from parents. If merit pay is ever instituted, teachers understand they will, like all competitors, have to cater marginally to the wishes of others - perhaps pupils and their parents, who are perceived by many teachers as incompetent judges of what children should be taught. Merit pay has also been advocated as a means of attracting more competent and aggressive people into teaching, meaning the jobs of incompetent and mediocre teachers will be put in greater jeopardy.

Without doubt, teacher opposition to merit pay stems partly from the fear that teacher evaluations will be subjective, dependent upon the preferences of those who do the evaluating. However, such a concern must not be taken too seriously (nor totally dismissed either), for it is readily voiced by those who have made a profession out of judging the ''quality'' of their pupils' papers and deportment. Furthermore, teacher evaluation can, in part, be tied to their pupils' performance, a rather rigorous objective criterion.

Judging teachers should be no more difficult than judging the work of many other professionals, including trial lawyers, nurses, and presidential aides. Although education administrators may not be able to draw fine distinctions between teachers of more or less equal abilities, they should be able to distinguish between teachers who know their subjects very well and whose students do well and those whose classroom performance can be described as little better than a random walk.

There is, however, a less obvious reason teachers are more likely to object to merit pay than their counterparts in the private sector. In a private firm, when one person is more productive, company revenues and profits go up and all within the firm can benefit. So it makes sense for the firm to reward those who excel. It also makes sense for workers in the private sector to support, within bounds, the productive efforts of their colleagues.

On the other hand, teachers caught in their budgetary bureaucracies understand that teacher salaries now have little or nothing to do with teacher productivity. The education budget is established in the state capital by legislators who look far more carefully at last year's budget and this year's state revenues than they do at SAT scores. (I dare say that no state legislature has ever distributed education dollars to school districts in line with SAT scores, except by coincidence.)

Teachers understand that given the more or less fixed education pie, merit pay converts to a system in which teachers who do well actually harm (in the sense they take dollars away from) those who continue to function as they have in the past, i.e., the less aggressive and mediocre teachers. Indeed, merit pay could actually become a system that encourages the less competent to hamper the good works of the more competent teachers, because such obstructions can actually raise the absolute and relative pay of those who obstruct - given the fixed nature of the education pie. A real concern is that teacher time and school resources will, because of merit pay and the fixed education pie, be diverted away from educating children and toward coping with teacher jealousies and petty rivalries.

Teacher associations can be expected to oppose merit pay schemes for one reason: They are political institutions, led by astute education politicians, that tend to respond in policy matters to the middle-of-the-road teachers, meaning mediocre or average teachers. Master teacher programs, by definition of ''master teacher,'' will benefit few within these highly political institutions and offer education leaders few votes.

A close examination of merit pay reveals that teachers, rightly or wrongly, have several understandable objections to President Reagan's merit pay proposal. To call the objections ''understandable'' is not, however, to say that the objections have merit. Realistically speaking, the opposition to the idea of merit pay perhaps suggests that to break the political resistance of the education establishment, teachers must be guaranteed that education budgets will increase so that the teachers who are judged as ''master teachers'' do not take income from the pockets of others. Such a position, however, means more tax dollars for education.

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