By Douglas Fehlen
Advocating for Merit Pay
Since being appointed U.S. Education Secretary by President Obama, Arne Duncan has voiced strong support for merit-based pay for K-12 public school teachers. The Obama administration's policies have reflected a commitment to the salary model, issuing Race to the Top grants to schools implementing performance-based compensation.
Last month, as many educators descended on Washington for a 'Save Our Schools' rally directed against various Obama administration education policies, Secretary Duncan left little doubt that the White House maintains its commitment to the merit-based pay. Speaking at a conference of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, Duncan reaffirmed his wish for schools to provide greater compensation for 'effective' teachers.
'Many bright and committed young people are attracted to teaching . . . but they see it as low-paying and low-prestige,' Duncan remarked at the conference. The answer, he suggested, was higher salaries for teachers. In the pay scale Duncan proposed, teacher pay would start at $60,000, significantly higher than the current salary average for first-year teachers. For those who have been in the profession for a longer period of time, merit-based incentives would allow educators to earn up to $150,000 a year.
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Compensating teachers based on performance is a lightning rod topic in education. Some teaching professionals embrace the opportunity to enhance their earning potential through incentives, while others are quick to point out perceived flaws in compensation models. For instance, many object that educator evaluations are often largely (or exclusively) tied to student standardized test scores, a measure they feel makes for inequalities between schools.
Critics observe that there is another unfortunate byproduct of tying teacher pay to student performance: academic scandal. Educators in 44 Atlanta public schools stand accused of participating in a widespread cheating campaign intended to artificially inflate district performance. More than 178 educators, including 38 principals, have been implicated in the standardized testing scandal. Educators allegedly gave students answers, allowed them to work in groups or even changed student answers after tests were administered. A city-commissioned report revealed that pressure to improve teacher pay was a significant factor in the scandal.
Many of those who are uneasy with the idea of tying teacher compensation to learner performance have been looking to Secretary Duncan and other policymakers in education to provide an evaluation system that relies on criteria other than student scores on standardized tests. At the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards conference, Duncan declined offering specifics on any such potential evaluation system. When pressed by educators, he suggested that the intention of his talk was 'to start a national conversation' about what that might look like.
Learn more about the contentious debate surrounding school reform in the United States.