Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On Being a Teacher, or Why Merit Pay Stinks.

I'm taking a course on organizational theory right now and the readings have caused me to reflect on an issue that is getting a fair deal of play in education right now - merit pay for teachers. There are many specific arguments that can be made as to why merit pay is a bad idea and doesn't work, but I am a fan of looking at things from first principles. My readings on organizational theory have helped me to consider the first principles that are at play for the people who argue in favour of merit pay.

Those who tend to argue merit pay also argue for school choice, competition, rankings and the implementation of all sorts of market reforms in the education system. Ultimately these arguments are based on a fundamental vision of education that is drastically different from mine and that of most people close to schools. The market reformers view education in terms of a factory, where the inputs are young students with little knowledge and the outputs are graduates with a vast array of knowledge. Somewhere in between there is a transformation process where teachers install knowledge into pupils. The vision is of little boys and girls sitting on an assembly line, moving forward from teacher to teacher as the workers open flap A, insert knowledge component X and apply a diagnostic scanner to ensure the component is working properly. Next station!

Scientific Management guides this style of production and requires managers to "develop precise, standard procedures for doing each job; select workers with appropriate abilities; train workers in the standard procedures; carefully plan work; and provide wage incentives to increase output" (Daft and Armstrong, 2009, p. 24). The approach was pioneered by Frederick Winslow Taylor and worked well when implemented in the Bethlehem Steel Plant in 1898 to ensure that more employees unloaded more iron and loaded more steel onto rail cars.

Forgive me for being condescending, but students are not chunks of iron and plates of steel. Nor are they intricately wired and extensively engineered automobiles being pieced together on an assembly line.

(Interestingly, the Hawthorne Studies of the late 1920s and early 30s showed that performance incentives actually had a demotivating effect, even for factory work, and that improvements to productivity were actually made through the positive treatment of employees and by listening to employees concerns and ideas. But I digress.)

My argument is this, students are not products moving along an assembly line and teachers are not factory installers. The work of education and of teachers is complex, variable and highly skilled. As was once described to me by a speaker whose name I forget, pilots fly a finite number of models of planes and if they don't know something about the plane there is a manual they can pull out to find the answer - students don't come with manuals. Students do however come with an infinite number of contextual variables: family, prior education, economic status, emotional aptitudes, intellectual variables, medical conditions, behaviour disorders, talents, passions, fears, hopes and dreams.

The important work of teachers, done well, requires sorting through those variables to assess the needs of individual students, designing educational plans that meet those needs, implementing the plans and adapting as required, while observing multiple data sources to determine whether the outcomes are being met and what further steps need to be taken.

This type of work can not be boiled down into standard procedures and cannot be appropriately measured using standardized tests. Increasing teacher effectiveness is achieved not by tying a carrot to the end of a stick, but by providing teachers with the time, resources and professional freedom that is required to get the work done well. Those people who are looking for accountability should look to professional models like those in place for doctors and lawyers where the professionals are required to maintain ongoing professional development (prescribed by the individual practitioners) and the profession is given the authority to police the competency of its peers and determine whether they are fit to practice. (Interestingly, in Alberta, we are almost there.)

The best thing that can be done for education and our students is to provide the conditions necessary to allow teachers to do their important work.


Daft R. L., & Armstrong A. (2009). Organization theory and design. Toronto, ON: Nelson Education.

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