Merit pay creates more problems than solutions

Performance-based pay is unlikely to be the remedy the American education system so desperately needs

More stories from Thomas Hensen

You would think that as one of the richest countries in the world, the U.S. could afford and be able to provide an education system on par with its financial wealth.

Well, think again. Despite consistently ranking first in the world in gross domestic product by the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. placed 28th in student achievement tests in a study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2015.

How is it that a country like Singapore (one which barely cracked the top 40 in GDP) can rank first in student achievement, but the richest and arguably most powerful country in the world struggles to keep up? Clearly, something is wrong here.

Let me start by saying that I am by no means prepared to offer a solution; I’m simply here to explain why a merit-based pay system will hurt more than help the current situation.

Theoretically, merit-based pay makes sense; we should give teachers who perform better more money. However, this approach only looks at the system on the surface and fails to recognize the variety of problems that accompany it.

For starters, merit pay creates competition. In an educational community like the one so familiar to us here at UW-Eau Claire, every member should show a willingness to help one another. Professors should be collaborating and working with one another, not competing with each other for money.

A recurring problem when debating merit pay is how to measure merit. And that’s the problem: How do we measure merit? There is no way we can universally agree on what objectively makes a good teacher.

We know all too well test scores can be misrepresentative and hiring people to evaluate teachers regularly just isn’t financially viable (especially considering Wisconsin’s current education funds). In addition, evaluations would be inevitably subjective, creating a popularity contest among teachers to see who can get the evaluator to give them more money.

One of the major ways merit pay fails to fix the American education system is that it will divide it even more so. You see, the education system in the U.S. isn’t failing everyone. In fact, many K-12 schools in rural and suburban settings are successfully preparing students for college or other post-high school endeavors. Unfortunately, it’s often the schools in urban regions that get the short end of the stick.

Urban areas are often associated with higher poverty rates, resulting in schools with less qualified teachers, older and potentially outdated facilities and lower educational standards, according to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

This, on average, leads to rural and suburban students experiencing more success than their urban counterparts.

Merit pay would create an even larger gap between the two because teachers would have greater incentive to work with students who are more likely to succeed, leaving less able teachers with students of unequal opportunity.

Even if you ignore everything said up to this point, one thing remains true: Teachers are not in it for the money; they are in it for the betterment of their students and society as a whole. If we can’t motivate teachers with student success and instead have to resort to money then we have already lost focus of what is important.

Education is a fundamental pillar that can be found in the backbone of any successful society.

We can’t approach education the same way we do business. We can’t apply to it the same rules we do when trying to make money. We can’t forget or ignore the essentiality and virtue of education.

We have to take education seriously; it is the future.