Why merit pay for teachers makes no sense

First of all, full disclosure. I come from a family of teachers. My mother was a teacher, my maternal grandfather went from school principal to deputy minister in the Dept. of Education here in BC, both my maternal grandmother and aunt taught nursing and my father has taught university biology classes. Suffice it to say that the likelihood of me ending up in a teaching career is extremely high.

Back to merit pay. The Globe and Mail has a recent article on it, which is what got me thinking. In principle, I like the idea of merit pay, as I suspect most people do. It strikes to the heart of our sense of fairness and reward. Do better and get rewarded for it. Which brings us to the big problem with merit pay for teachers. What the heck do you reward them for?

The most common reward seems to be students marks, either through not having them fail or through getting higher grades. But are grades the be all and end all of teaching? No, schools are important places of social and creative learning, neither of which are especially well tested by any standard method. Nor can whether little Bobby or Sue or Rajinder is going to be a well adjusted person in later life be determined from a multiple choice test.

So if you cannot easily test whether or not a teacher is truly succeeding at all they are supposed to do, not just whether or not their students do well in standardized tests, you cannot fairly apportion merit pay. Because to do so would be to reward those teachers that “teach to the test” and not teach the student, and teaching to the test is precisely what a school should not be doing. Rather than use that money to reward teachers on some arbitrary system, why not use the money to pay for a few school breakfasts and lunches? Well fed students learn better and are more attentive, regardless of whether they are in a Math, English or Drama class.