In our opinion: Consider merit pay

Published: Friday, Nov. 4 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Stephanie Discher talks to her fourth-grade class at Midway Elementary School on Feb. 8. Midway is forming a teacher merit-pay plan.Stephanie Discher talks to her fourth-grade class at Midway Elementary School on Feb. 8. Midway is forming a teacher merit-pay plan.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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The idea of granting school teachers raises based on merit is not new. In the 1980s, Utah's Legislature instituted "career ladder" funding as part of a school reform effort. The money originally was supposed to be appropriated to reward merit, but instead it became extra pay for teachers who took on extra duties or worked overtime, and it funded teacher planning days and in-service programs.

Today's school-reform climate nationally is different than it was all those years ago. And so, when lawmakers say they are considering bills that would appropriate performance pay statewide, there is reason to believe the money this time would be used as intended. That's a good thing. While a merit pay system must be organized properly to fairly reflect good work, the idea that all teachers should be paid equally regardless of performance is clearly not the pathway to a better education system.

It is true that people do not enter the teaching profession with the thought of making a lot of money, but that can be said of many professions where the job itself provides non-monetary rewards. It is easy, however, to imagine that more talented young people might be attracted to teaching careers if they believed they would be rewarded economically for doing a great job. Meaningful rewards are important in every human pursuit.

In the pursuit of ideas, Utah may wish to look one state to the north. Idaho has implemented an aggressive, if somewhat controversial merit plan. Schools there are mandated to develop plans for rewarding teachers who excel, but are given latitude in determining how this is to be done, leading to what the Associated Press calls "a laboratory of pay-for-performance methods."

At least 29 districts in Idaho will base merit pay at least partly on how well a teacher can get parents involved. In some districts, this means meeting a requirement that a certain percentage of parents attend parent-teacher conferences. In general, this requirement is one of a mixture of standards that include student performance, graduation rates and an assessment of writing abilities.

The old standby objections to merit pay — such as that they cannot be fairly applied to a profession in which performance is affected by things beyond a teacher's control — are beginning to fade. New objections run more along the lines of how standards could lead to unintended consequences. An evaluation that relies on parental performance may lead teachers to do things, such as give good grades where none are earned, in order to make parents happy.

But a merit system that uses parental involvement as only one among many achievement standards would soften some of these concerns. Teachers who give good grades to students who can't perform well on tests would be suspect.

Merit pay, especially if left to school districts to structure within a set of guidelines, would be one way to increase teacher salaries while also encouraging improvements to the system. It isn't the radical change we have urged in earlier editorials, but it deserves serious consideration.

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