Some advice for the CEOs advocating merit pay for teachers

Imagine paying doctors based on whether their patients live or die, or paying social workers based on how many down-and-out clients they coach into becoming successful.

These are ridiculous suggestions. Yet the same logic underlies the idea put forth in a report by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE), a group of 150 top Canadian CEOs, which says teachers should be paid according to their so-called “performance” in the classroom. 

Merit pay for teachers is an idea periodically promoted by right-wing think-tanks like the Fraser Institute, who view everything through a corporate lens. But it’s hard to think of a profession in which evaluation could be as subjective, and a system of monetary rewards and punishments so damaging, as it would be in teaching. The kind of scheme proposed by the CCCE could never be fair, consistent and meaningful in the real world of teachers, let alone a productive use of public time and money.

The mentality that pushes merit pay for teachers is typical of the troubling trend of corporatization in public education, which often tries to brand itself as “education reform.” So-called reformers want to base education policy on easily measurable outcomes like test scores. They push the idea that “teacher quality” is the only factor that affects student success, as if class sizes, poverty, racism, mental health problems and bullying, to name just a few issues, have no effect.

For the moneyBut schools are not businesses; nor should they be run like them. It should be obvious that schools are so much more than testing factories, and while every teacher wants students to get good grades, we also want them to learn to be happy, healthy, empathetic, well-rounded humans. In an ideal world, these things coincide. In practice, they don’t always.

(To its credit, the CCCE says it doesn’t back merit pay based on test scores, but rather on a more comprehensive evaluation process. Still, there is no adequate mechanism that could compare a math teacher to a band teacher to a resource teacher, nor take into account things like extra-curriculars, personal counselling, sense of humour, motivating students to become impassioned to change the world, etc.)

If the Canadian Council of Chief Executives really wants to improve public education, there are a few things it could do. First, its members could pay appropriate levels of corporate tax, like those in place before the Chrétien era. The increased revenues could help fund public education adequately, giving relief to overcrowded classrooms and providing badly needed guidance and mental health services in schools, to name just a few things.

As well, they could work toward ending the obscene levels of wealth inequality in Canada, since research has proven time and time again that poverty is the greatest impediment to student success. A simple starting step would be to close the stock options tax loophole, whereby Canadians pay over $100 million per year in subsidies to just 100 CEOs.

It’s a tall order to expect a bunch of CEOs to talk about reducing their own profits and bonuses, but we can dream. Until then, scrap the hare-brained idea of making teachers compete against each other rather than collaborate, as we have always done.

6 thoughts on “Some advice for the CEOs advocating merit pay for teachers”

  1. I always find it ironic that teachers, who assign grades based on performance to students, think they ought to be immune from such evaluation themselves. Teachers are human too – and there are good teachers and bad teachers. I want more good teachers than bad teachers in Nova Scotia’s classrooms.

    Honest question for you Ben: How do can we weed out the bad teachers? If not by evaluation and merit pay?

    Quick anecdote: I once filed a complaint about a principal who was verbally abusing my son in school (shouting, bullying, etc). I went to any one who would listen, and still, no luck. That man is still a principal, still causing young boys to pee their pants, still teaching. How can we dislodge this cancer on our education system? Because I sure as hell don’t know how. That man should not be teaching, but he sweet-talks the union and they love him there. My son is still terrified of going to school, four years later.

    1. I’m sorry about your experience John, but surely you believe any worker who has a complaint filed against him/her still deserves due process? This is what a union ensures: protection against arbitrary treatment. It has nothing to do with “sweet-talking.” I can’t comment on a specific case I know nothing about, except to say that processes are in place and teachers who do not live up to codes of ethics can be, and are, sanctioned.

      Actually teachers do face evaluations regularly. Making them punitive and competitive, though, would do nothing to improve education. Here’s another good article from the National Post (of all places) this morning: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2014/03/03/zander-sherman-the-case-against-performance-pay-for-teachers/

      For the record, grading is the worst part of my job. I often think how great it would be not to have to assign grades…Joe Bower has written much about this. You might enjoy his blog: joebower.org. All the best.

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