Last week, Michelle Rhee, chancellor of D.C. public schools, made national news by firing 241 — six percent — of the District’s teachers deemed underperformers. Rhee’s move came after negotiations in June with the Washington Teachers’ Union that created a merit-based bonus system that permits well-performing teachers to earn up to a 21 percent pay increase. The agreement also allows the District to fire those who did not meet minimum benchmarks. Teacher assessment scores will be based half on student improvement and half on in-class teacher evaluations.
While performance-related pay has been around since the 1700s and affects the pay scale of over 85 percent of private sector employees, the debate over merit pay for teachers is still highly contentious. On one hand, proponents argue merit pay will help cash-strapped schools retain good teachers and shed bad ones. They also argue that this will create a salary scale that is fairer than the system of seniority pay that currently exists in most school systems. On the other hand, opponents contend that merit pay may work for seamstresses, but teaching is too complicated to base quality on student performance on a standardized test.
The argument goes, evaluating teachers based solely on a set of student-achievement benchmarks will incentivize teachers to neglect the essential but non-tested responsibilities of educators. As George Parker, current president of the Washington Teachers’ Union put it, “It [merit pay] takes the art of teaching and turns it into bean counting.” Yet numerous other professions that require complex skills and responsibilities have adopted merit pay with positive results. For example, the department of Homeland Security has recently implemented performance-related pay for security analysts, and few would equate scrutinizing terrorist threats with “bean counting”.
The real question for education policy makers is to what degree can metrics assess the added v