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August 25, 2010

Should great teachers earn a higher salary?

Coinciding with the release of the brilliant new horror flick*/education documentary Waiting for Superman, GreatSchools has proudly sponsored a debate between two teachers about a hugely controversial and deeply relevant topic in education reform:

Should great teachers earn more than mediocre ones?

Susie Siegel, an award-winning kindergarten teacher in San Francisco, and Robert Pondiscio, an education writer and former middle school teacher from the Bronx, each weigh in on the issue, drawing from their personal experiences and philosophical stances.

Ironically, though arguing opposing views, they both portray teachers as more motivated by altruism than materialism. Siegel admits to having enjoyed merit pay, then argues against it, while Pondiscio speculates that most teachers would give up half their paycheck if they could ensure their students' success.

Check out both sides of the debate, mull over your position, and cast your vote at the Waiting for Superman site.

Robert Pondiscio:

RP_profile Absolutely. All we need is to accurately define teacher quality and assess it. Neither is easy. Test scores? If we learned nothing else from the recent Los Angeles Times “value-added” controversy, it’s that there are serious problems with judging teachers by test scores alone.

Merit pay assumes mediocre teachers are sitting around saying, “Sure, I can do a better job. Throw me a few more shekels and maybe I will.” The media image of lousy schools staffed by lazy teachers doesn’t match my experience teaching in the South Bronx. Indeed, offer a Faustian pact where every child would achieve but teacher pay would be cut in half, and many teachers would sign up in a nanosecond.

Low-income children are hit the hardest. Find me a parent in Greenwich, Grosse Point, or Newport Beach who evaluates the quality of their child’s teacher based on test scores. For the children of the poor, however, reading at grade level has become the functional definition of what it means to be educated and the de facto standard of teacher quality. The danger cannot be overstated: We can’t set the finish line for other people’s children where we set the starting line for our own.

In an ideal world, the teaching profession should be treated like other professions where those who perform better earn more, but until a definition of teacher quality can be created, it remains difficult to know what we’re paying them for.

Susie Siegel:

Image1 In 1992 I worked at a school in Chelsea, Mass., and received merit pay based on outstanding evaluations. Admittedly, I enjoyed getting the extra $1,000, but I am very much against it:

  1. If merit pay is based on a teacher's evaluation, there is no unbiased way to measure a teacher's success. If an administrator doesn't like a specific teacher, then the performance review can reflect those biases. Conversely, if an evaluator likes the teacher, then their glowing evaluations may gloss over poor teaching.
  2. How would you measure all teachers' progress using kids' test scores? A sixth-grade English teacher’s work might arguably be measurable through test scores, but what about the sixth-grade health teacher or librarian? How would we evaluate the job of a kindergarten teacher whose students are not tested?
  3. Merit pay doesn't factor in how inequitable schools are. One school might have an involved parent population, thereby producing extremely high test scores. Another school might have little parent involvement, thereby producing low scores. Retaining veteran teachers at these schools is already difficult. Merit pay would perpetuate this cycle because teachers would know that if they teach at a “high-performing" school, they will be deemed successful.

Finally, I worry about what merit pay would do to the teaching profession. Would the beautiful idea of "it takes a village" turn into "everyone out for him-/herself?" Most important, would testing become teachers’ focus at the expense of the arts, athletics, and other life lessons so vital to nourishing the whole child?

*This new horror genre targets parents of public school children like Friday the 13th targets people afraid of scary things.


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There is a government program that provides incentives to teach on Indian reservations that includes tuition reimbursment, school loan forgiveness, free housing,etc for any teacher willing to go there. Pay for teachers is based on Zip code because it varies by school district. We already pay teachers more to teach the easiest to teach students. The propensity of the least experienced teachers to be assigned the toughest classes is well known and based on lack of seniority. So without some reward for taking worst to first instead of the elite's children with all the resources to a better spot, the discussion is interesting but irrelevant. Yes Jaimie Escalante and every KIPP teacher should be paid more because in addition to teaching the most difficult to teach students, they are literally saving lives.

The African proverb: "It takes a village ..." has been taken out of its cultural context. Historically, "to teach a child" referred to teaching them to be a productive responsible member of their adult community. This teaching related to the learning of cultural and social norms and/or values. Consequently, it has never taking an entire village to teach a single subject such as math or reading but never let the facts mess up a meaningless highly popular educational catch phase.

In today's warm & fuzzy educational never-never land environment, all teachers are all equally talented, highly motivated, and completely competent, so there would never be a need for any type of merit based pay system. However, this type of thinking fails to explain the current state of education in the United States.


If our schools are going to prepare our kids for the real world, they should be modeled by the real world. States are facing bankruptcy, government debt has never grown faster...and, the real job creators in America are small businesses--run by hard-working entrepreneurs. Do we want to continue growing our state debts by promoting government handout programs to non-performing individuals? Or, use a model that actually improves the economy's well-being? Increase pay for increased performance all the way!

Low-income children are hit the hardest. Find me a parent in Greenwich, Grosse Point, or Newport Beach who evaluates the quality of their child’s teacher based on test scores. For the children of the poor, however, reading at grade level has become the functional definition of what it means to be educated and the de facto standard of teacher quality.

How do you evaluate a teacher?

The greatest teacher you would choose is the one spend least time on teaching but most time on social relationship. Same as in any other industries.

"Fantasy", that's the problem. Children today are hyper-socialized, but under-educated. Their capabilities of taking meaning from anything longer than a tweet or text message are atrophying at an alarming rate.

I believe merit pay could work but it would be a complex process to do it correctly. No single factor of determining merit is sufficient in itself so the equation must be multifactorial.

There are many people who evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher throughout the year, whether it be by official or passive means. Administrators and mentors may play official roles. Colleagues, students and parents play more passive roles.

All of these players should be combined, along with test score results, to determine a summary score for effectiveness. A good teacher is empathetic, hard-working, approachable, fair, etc. Students, parents, and maybe fellow teachers should complete an end-of-year survey regarding the teacher's effectiveness. Each school should be able to set test score goals that are appropriate.

Using this multifaceted method would limiit the liklihood of any single factor determining success by itself. If a pricipal disliked a teacher but the students and parents liked her, and if the test scores were appropriate, the teacher may still be eligible for a bonus. If the teacher is unfortunate enough to get a challenging class but works really hard to be successful, she may still have a chance at a bonus. The size of the bonus could be tied to the final summary score the teacher earned.

To me this is obviously a complex process, but it is the only "fair and appropriate" way to conduct a merit pay system.

Poor teachers should not be hired. Period. Address this and most other discussions will become moot.

Competent teachers should be paid a fair-competitive wage. If a school cannot recruit competent teachers, then there is something amiss with either the compensation offered or with how the school or teaching profession is being managed.

All teachers should have the opportunity for promotion (by exam), resulting in increased responsibilities and delegation of authority with a resultant increase in compensation.

Such responsibilities include developing curriculum and mentoring new teachers in addition to teaching. These above average teachers will then be compensated accordingly if they choose to compete for promotion.

Treat teaching like a profession instead of a stint in the peace corps. In the real world, not everyone who is qualified for such will get promoted as such opportunities are limited. Most people accept this. Those who can't accept it, seek employment elsewhere or change careers.

The bottom line-make sure we have a competent teacher in every classroom.

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