Wake County school leaders criticize the use of merit pay for teachers

Posted by T. Keung Hui on March 5, 2014 

Wake County school leaders made it clear Tuesday that they don’t think merit pay works for teachers and even in some parts of the private sector.

As noted in today’s article, school board members and teachers on Tuesday were critical of the General Assembly’s efforts to end tenure and move the state toward a merit-pay based system for teacher compensation. They said the state’s requirement that districts offer 25 percent of their teachers pay raises in return for giving up tenure is a concept that doesn’t work for educating students.

You can go online and find studies both pro and con about merit pay with supporters noting that even the Obama Administration has backed the idea. But for the purpose of this post, it’s going to detail what the opponents said Tuesday so you can get a feel for why they are opposed to the concept.

Merit pay was mentioned several times during the press conference held before the board meeting to explain why the resolution opposing the new teacher contracts was on the agenda.

“We are truly looking at research on performance pay, on merit pay,” said school board chairwoman Christine Kushner. “:We see that for complex long-term tasks like teaching, performance pay has not proven to be effective. In fact, it’s proven to be counterproductive.

For short-term tasks and simple tasks, rewards work. For teaching and other thought professions, we’re concerned that this is not the way to go.”

Kushner was asked about how Wake uses performance pay as part of the Renaissance Schools program that’s funded by the federal Race to the top Grant. The grant money runs out at the end of the school year so it’s up to Wake whether to keep that component.

Kushner said they’re waiting for the Data and Planning staff to complete an evaluation of the program. She said no decision has been made yet whether to continue the funding.

That’s a 180 from the former Republican school board majority and former Superintendent Tony Tata, who both backed merit pay for teachers. That support didn’t help Tata when the Democrats gained the board majority.

Later in the press conference, Broughton High School teacher Lee Quinn spoke out against merit pay for teachers.

“In a practical sense, if I’ve got pedagogy, if I’ve got a lesson plan or project that works really well for me and it helps my students to excel, this plan incentivizes me to keep it to myself,” Quinn said. “If you follow the logic of this plan, a teacher wouldn’t want his or her neighbor in the school to succeed because that promotes competition for that bonus or that merit pay as Chairwoman Kushner mentions.

It’s one reason why merit pay doesn’t work in teaching. It gives us the motivation as teachers to not share what works best. By not sharing what works best, we hinder what can be the greatest potential for our students.”

Later in the press conference, Quinn was asked if people compete in the private sector for the best jobs why collaboration is the best practice in schools. Kushner stepped in to answer the question for Quinn, disputing the validity of merit pay in the private sector..

"I spoke with some business leaders who say that doesn’t work in business practice either,” Kushner said. “At the Emerging Issues Forum, we heard from Daniel Pink, who is a corporate business motivational speaker, who has written a book called " Drive."

As I said earlier, complex thought processes, complex long-term tasks, rewards are not effective. In fact, they’re counterproductive and that’s been the private sector and for our teachers. Our teachers are like physicians, lawyers. They are thought leaders. They are knowledge-based workers if we want to reduce it to a labor force.

As a board, if we’re going to encourage our labor force to, if you talk in a labor perspective, if we want to encourage our labor force to excel and be creative and work together and collaborate, we need to make sure that our salary structure encourages that. So that’s what we’re looking for."

School board vice chairman Tom Benton also criticized merit pay when he spoke at the press conference. He too questioned how well it works in business.

“Bonus pay or merit pay is often used to reward people who do sort of mechanical types of work,” Benton said. “That works every efficiently when you do that. If you talk to leaders at SAS and other highly complex industries in our state, I don’t think you’ll find a single one that supports a merit pay plan of this type for average workers in their system. It has proven to be counterproductive."

The talk continued into the board meeting with some speakers criticizing merit pay as attempt to bring corporate values into public education. Heather Shipley, the academically and intellectually gifted teacher at Pleasant Union Elementary School in North Raleigh, drew cheers from the crowd when she said teachers want collaboration and not competition.

"Despite their claims, instituting competition among North Carolina’s educators will not yield more positive results than teamwork and collaboration,” Shipley said. “This idea clearly illustrates the disconnect between our legislators’ corporate agenda and sound educational practices. These contracts are a detriment to the learning communities we have worked so hard to build in this county and will undoubtedly result in less effective teaching and learning.

Educational decisions should always be based on what we know to be true about teaching and learning, not on political agendas or an unfounded vision to turn our schools into a competitive market place."

One sign that merit pay might not be working well is the speech given by Sandy Pirolli, the principal of Barwell Road Elementary School in Raleigh, which is one of the Renaissance Schools. Pirolli praised the resolution opposing the new contracts and said the loss of many teachers at her school has resulted in a very young staff, containing 53 percent beginning teachers.

“In the past year, I’m very weary and I’m very saddened and, yes, we are in crisis in the state of North Carolina,” Pirolli said. “I’m losing teachers right and left, and I’m literally watching the program that we built fall apart.”

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