Teacher performance pay oversimplifies a complex problem




by Christopher Paslay


“Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom.”


These were the words of Barack Obama in his first education policy speech last month.  He believes that performance pay is the spark needed to motivate our nation’s educators.   


I agree that rewarding good teachers with extra money is a nice gesture, but how is this raising the bar when it comes to education?  Talented teachers committed to reaching their students will produce regardless of pay; they are dedicated to the profession for reasons other than salary.


Struggling teachers might be motivated by pay, but this assumes that they have the capability to achieve in the first place.  Often times less effective teachers lack the resources and experience needed to succeed.  They receive little help from parents and community, and in too many cases their university training does not properly prepare them for life in a real classroom. 


Performance pay is unrealistic.  The Philadelphia School District doesn’t have the stability to set reliable student performance targets, nor do they have the resources necessary to properly assess these targets.  In addition, politics would get in the way of assessments—a teacher’s personality could end up being more important than their performance.


Performance pay also suggests that the problem with education is teachers, and that the problem with teachers is that they are not working hard enough.  As a dedicated educator, this idea is insulting.  Granted, there are cases where teachers are not meeting their full potential, but to generalize educators as Obama does is quite insensitive.        


Most teachers are in the classroom eight hours a day, and bring work home at night and on the weekends.  We write the lesson, produce the lesson (generating and copying all the materials), present the lesson, and grade the lesson. 


How many business executives write, produce, present, and assess five hour-long presentations a day, every day?  And how many do this with an audience of 30 children distracted by cell phones and iPods, kids with ADD or autism, kids who don’t understand how to resolve conflict non-violently because they don’t have a father and their mother is suffering from addiction problems? 


Of course, an educator’s time in the classroom is only one segment of the job.  Teachers must also deal with IEPs, CSAPs, and all manner of paperwork; we must attend meetings with parents, counselors, and administrators; we must go to workshops and professional development; we must tutor, mentor, and coach.  And some of us must do this for six subjects at a time, with 180 students at a clip


According to a recent article in the Inquirer (“Second look at merit pay for teachers”), “Changing the way teachers are paid is an idea whose time has come, one key to fixing a broken education system . . .”


Notice the words, broken education system.  This phrase is so overused by newspapers and politicians that it’s become boilerplate.  It’s almost as generic as the phrase quality teacher.     


What about our broken society?  Our instant gratification culture?  Do you think iPhones are helping lengthen attention spans?  Do you think the violence and soft core pornography found on television and in video games is helping our students get interested in reading The Grapes of Wrath


What about the lack of family?  The lack of guidance from community?  Kids with no father?  Kids with no parents at all?  


What about OxyContin?  Obesity?  Gangsta rap?  Are these things part of our “broken education system”?    


What about the lack of responsibility from the students themselves?


It’s amazing how these issues are consistently overlooked, and the blame is placed solely on the teachers and the schools. 


Merit pay is impractical and short-sighted.  It stereotypes our nation’s educators, and oversimplifies an incredibly complex problem.    


5 thoughts on “Teacher performance pay oversimplifies a complex problem

  1. I believe the Inquirer might have a desk in 440 N. Broad St. Everything I’ve read in the paper recently
    (merit pay, breakfast in the classroom) are more than likely coming from the superintendent’s office . It appears to be propaganda to sway the public. I don’t know of anyone with educational experience that thinks they are good ideas. It will be a very interesting summer with both a PFT and CASA contract on the horizon.

  2. Please, Dr. Ackerman, offer an early retirement incentive so that many of us “terrible teachers” can happily leave and collect our pensions. We can’t wait to see who you will get to replace us in the classroom. Performance pay? Merit pay? Decided by whom? School administrators? What a joke! Someone needs to evaluate their performance! Let’s evaluate Arlene’s performance. She hasn’t earned the salary and benefits package she’s receiving. As for the Inquirer, it has always bashed teachers. Remember Dale Mezzacappa? She never had a good word to say about us. Remember, teaching is the only profession that doesn’t govern itself. That’s why there are so many problems…. educational decisions are being made by non-educators.

    • Dale is still doing her thing over on The Notebook blog. Still ingratiating herself to those within the hierchy of power. She’s one of the reasons I WON’T miss the Philadelphia Inquirer when it closes its door.

  3. Merit pay could work if it was based on whole school performance and given to the entire school.

    But before we can discuss merit pay we have to give the teachers instructional materials that give them a fair chance of succeeding no matter where they work.

    Balanced literacy reading instruction used in all Philadelphia public schools fails many kids especially kids in our low performing schools. Most teachers are hard working and doing the best they can. The reading instruction is what needs fixing. That is the real problem, not the teachers.

    Find instructional materials that are not affected by SES.

    Start with Direct Instruction. Read the following:


    SES did not affect results.

    Or start with the reading program from the Southwest Regional Laboratory (SWRL):


    SES did not affect results.

    The public does not want to hear that you are working hard, or that the kids are sleepy or hungry or the parents are bad. They want to hear about results just like you want to hear about results from any professional you use.

    We can get better results but first we need to look at our reading instruction.

    Read Louisa Moats, Whole Language High Jinks at:


    Fix our flawed reading instruction first, then look at total school performance for merit pay.


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