Sachin Maharaj of the Toronto Star writes:
Several U.S. jurisdictions — including Denver, Austin and Washington, D.C. — are experimenting with merit pay for teachers. The goal is to pay effective teachers more than ineffective ones. Given that Ontario spends over $12.5 billion on teacher salaries, is this something we should consider?
Merit pay systems usually, and predictably, are met with fierce criticism from teacher unions. Yet while merit pay has its drawbacks, it should be evaluated in comparison to the system currently in place: the single salary schedule that pays teachers based on seniority and academic credentials.
Prior to the implementation of the single schedule, there was systemic discrimination in Canadian public schools. Women and minorities were paid significantly less than non-minority males. Thus in 1920, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation passed a motion supporting “equal pay for equal work.” The May 7, 1921, edition of the Toronto Star tells of female teachers sending a letter to the Toronto Board of Education demanding equal pay and recognition as their male counterparts.
Thus the single schedule created an objective, non-discriminatory system of pay for all teachers. Yet while this was undoubtedly an improvement at the time, is the single salary schedule still the best system of pay for the teaching profession 90 years later?
One of the main flaws of the single schedule was originally one of its virtues: it treats all teachers the same. While this served an equity purpose in the 1920s, it has now led to perverse incentives. Thus a teacher in a high-needs school located in a low-income neighbourhood with kids who are not native English speakers gets paid the same as a teacher in a school in an affluent neighbourhood with kids for whom language is not an issue. Obviously teaching in the former is more difficult than the latter but the single schedule fails to recognize this.
With pay being equal there is an incentive for teachers to try to avoid the more difficult task of teaching in high-needs schools. So it is not surprising that this is what the research shows. In general, teachers tend to transfer into schools with high-achieving middle-class students and away from schools with high concentrations of low-achieving, low-income or minority students, and students with special needs. So while much talk in education centres on closing the achievement gap, it is curious that more attention is not paid to policies to improve the quality and retention of teachers in our neediest schools.
Yet perhaps the biggest problem with the single schedule is that it does not encourage effective teaching. The two things on which teacher pay is based — years of experience and academic qualifications — have little relationship with how well teachers actually teach. And the automatic yearly increases that are awarded with no regard to teacher effort or effectiveness provide no incentive to work harder or improve teaching practice. Lazy or ineffective teachers are paid the same as hardworking or effective ones. Excellence goes unrewarded, mediocrity goes unaddressed. This was clearly not the intention of the advocates of the single schedule.
One alternative is to incorporate merit into the schedule based on existing performance evaluations. This was one of the recommendations in the 2005 OECD report Teachers Matter: Attracting, Developing and Retaining Effective Teachers: “Although the principal focus of formative assessment is on teacher improvement, it can also provide a basis for rewarding teachers for exemplary performance. For example, outstanding performance and contributions could enable teachers to progress two salary steps at once.” Another alternative is to provide additional pay for teaching in high-needs schools. This has been implemented in places like Austin and Denver and has led to an increase in retention rates.
So while merit pay systems certainly have their issues, that does not mean we must uncritically default to the system that has been in place for the last 90 years. As the teaching profession has evolved so can its pay system. In addition to benefiting students, this will allow teaching to continue to attract, reward, and retain our best and brightest and thus rightfully take its place among the top professions in our society.
Sachin Maharaj is a graduate student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto and an assistant curriculum leader in the Toronto District School Board.