Some American public school districts are now offering salary incentives or “merit pay” to encourage and reward exemplary teachers. In Houston, Texas, the merit pay system started in 2005 provides teachers with $40 million (up to $11,000 extra per year) for measurable improvements in student performance. President Barak Obama surprised many by saying “It’s time to start rewarding good teachers and to stop making excuses for bad ones.” Should Canadian provinces be looking at teacher quality initiatives like merit pay? And if so, what kind of systems might work best?
The Americans seem attracted to merit pay systems because they fit more comfortably into the current “Race to the Top” reform agenda. The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) is now often cited as the exemplary model and it is driven by principles and models of effective teaching. Over the past week, Melinda Gates has weighed in with an influential commentary in The Washington Post (February 19, 2010). ” An effective teacher,” she claimed, ” has more impact on student performance than any other school-based factor.” Recent research in Australia by Dr. Richard Dinham and ACER tends to support that contention. Although 50% of student performance is linked to “student motivation,” about 30% is directly affected by “teacher quality.” In the United States, the Gates Foundation has also announced a Measures of Effective Teaching project, in 7 school districts, working with 3,000 teachers. It will develop measures to promote effectiveness, including videotaping classes, analyzing test scores, surveying teachers, students, and parents.
While the Gates Foundation has found modest support among teacher union ranks, the Teacher Effectiveness movement also faces formidable foes. With the passing of Albert Shanker the American National Teachers Union has found itself beseiged and has tended to rely heavily upon public voices such as the late Gerald W. Bracey and Alfie Kohn to do its thinking. Since 2005, Alfie Kohn has been the fiercest opponent of Merit Pay for teachers. From the beginning, he has claimed that “It Doesn’t Work” and long before it was even implemented in a planned or systematic fashion.
We should be considering other options perhaps better suited to the Canadian educational milieu. When we do, the Australian “Smarter Schools” model will have clear advantages. First proposed in April 2008, the Austraian project for improving Teacher Quality (TQ) is funded by $550 million over 5 years and includes both “facilitation” reforms and “reward” incentives. Business support has been critical and the Australian Business Council has invested heavily in “teacher quality” programs. (See the Stephen Dinham and http://www.acer.edu.au websites) It is a far more comprehensive system of teacher development than the U.S. free enterprise experiments.
The Australian plan is based on an ingeneous new teacher salary scale system tied directly to levels of teaching competence. It replaces the traditional Canadian “seniority, credentials system” with a “Standards-Based Career Structure.” Instead of being rewarded for seniority/long service and “positions of responsiblity,” teachers are expected to progress through four new stages of competence: probationary, registered, accomplished, and school leader. Salaries do not plateau at mid-career, but can rise to 1.46 X the starting salary. Simply put, the most competent, accomplished teachers also rise to the top on the new scales.
Having identified Teacher Quality as a critical factor in improving student performance, we should be looking for systems that work, not just recycling predictable Alfie Kohn commentaries. Now, it’s your turn.