Should Canada offer merit pay to teachers?

Some U.S. schools are offering bonuses or salary increases to standout educators.


Erin Anderssen

From Saturday’s Globe and Mail Published on Friday, Feb. 05, 2010 8:01PM EST Last updated on Saturday, Feb. 06, 2010 11:44AM EST

Sometimes, on their sleepier days, Wayne Phillips encourages his Grade 3 and 4 students to stand on tables and sing. When they arrived in class one day this week in the small community of Poplar Ridge, Alta., he had the volume cranked on the music video Human, by the Killers. He’s big on high fives and using funny voices to tell stories.

But what makes him a great teacher, not just an entertaining one, is his detailed lesson planning and, especially, the fact that he reinvents those plans every summer. Even after 24 years of teaching, he tries new strategies – making a racing game of geography, for example, by drawing a map of Alberta on the floor. He teaches responsibility by assigning jobs in class for which students apply (with résumés), are paid (in “brain bucks” to be spent in a June silent auction) and can be “fired” for poor work.

He rarely uses textbooks or worksheets. He knows how his students are doing and, because they often evaluate their work as a group, so do they. Building rapport, he says, is key: “Every day the kids are taking lots of chances answering questions, and they have to feel safe to do that.”

Kids in a classroom respond to the teacher's question.Kids in a classroom respond to the teacher’s question.

And he shares his ideas with other teachers, such as the summer scrapbook students put together before their first day in his class.

A good teacher often seems like mysterious alchemy, a magic potion of warmth and diligence and organization, with a splash of charisma, but researchers have long tried to distill it down to science. Some of the most stringent work has been done by the U.S. educational charity Teach for America, which has spent years tracking teachers in the classroom and analyzing what makes them successful.

Mr. Phillips, who last year received a teaching excellence award from the Prime Minister, would appear to get high grades: He is enthusiastic, he is continually innovating and, perhaps most important of all, he perseveres.

“If I am not that way,” he says, “then I really shouldn’t be in this position.”

However, if he were a great lawyer or doctor, he could expect to reap the fruits of his talent and hard work financially. As a teacher, only two entries on his résumé count toward his salary: education level and years of experience – two factors, the research says, that matter hardly at all when it comes to an educator’s effectiveness. It’s often said teachers are rewarded for longevity rather than skill.

“How does it reward good teachers to pay someone more because they have four years of university instead of five?” asks Michael Zwaagstra, a Manitoba high-school teacher and co-author of the upcoming book What’s Wrong with Schools – and How We Can Fix Them. “[The current system] has a lot to do with keeping things simple and maintaining the status quo, but not much to do with encouraging students’ performance.”

While parents in Canada invest their energy picking schools based on citywide rankings, studies suggest it’s the individual teacher who really matters; for academic results, at least, parents’ time would be better spent searching out that exceptional Grade 3 teacher, even if he or she worked in a lower-performing school.

According to one American study, having an exceptionally effective teacher for four or five years practically can erase the difference in school performance between low- and middle-income students.

The question, then, is: How can the system encourage more great teaching?


The idea of providing better teachers with better pay, through raises or bonuses, has been gaining ground in the United States. Even some teachers unions, long opposed to merit pay, have softened on the idea.

President Barack Obama’s education reforms include a $4-billion pot for states that make their schools the most accountable and specifically link standardized tests to teacher performance, with more merit pay often being the inevitable result.

“It’s time to start rewarding good teachers,” Mr. Obama said in a speech last year, “[and] stop making excuses for bad ones.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it more bluntly in a speech to the National Education Association: The current system, he said, “treats all teachers like interchangeable widgets.”

In Britain and Israel, and scattered studies in the U.S., merit pay has been linked to an improvement in student performance. In a pilot project in Massachusetts, teachers were promised bonuses of $3,000 – and an additional $100 per student, depending on final test marks – for getting more students into university-bound courses. Passing scores rose 38 per cent in a year, 11 times higher than the state average. A 2007 Florida study found that pay incentives for teachers had a larger impact on test scores than smaller classroom sizes.

In one Texas program, teachers were paid according to their students’ progress through university-bound courses – although the complication with the study was that students were also paid. But in schools that dropped teacher pay the following year, the progress stalled.

“Clearly there is something good about the idea,” says Kirabo Jackson, assistant professor of labour economics at Cornell University. “If you reward someone for excellence, they are more likely to be excellent.”

But it’s not an easy thing to assess. Even in states where test scores have improved, it’s been hard to separate merit pay from other educations reforms. And deciding who gets the bonus money and why is contentious.

Teachers as a group are overwhelmingly resistant. In a few U.S. examples, educators have refused their bonuses on principle. That opposition exists even when base pay is protected and bonuses are offered as perks for good work. In New York, such an approach was pitched to boost students’ success in advanced programs, but voted down by the union.

“I can understand, to some extent, people being opposed to performance pay if they think it means that if you do poorly, your pay is going to be lower,” Dr. Jackson says. “But teachers are opposed, even if they know full well that if they do absolutely nothing, their salary will be unchanged, and it can only benefit them.” (On the other hand, teachers are far more open to being paid extra for running extracurricular activities, which, as Mr. Zwaagstra points out, is “another example of merit pay.”)

In Washington, the controversial chancellor of public schools, Michelle Rhee, tried to sell the teachers union on the idea of a two-tired system – teachers could keep most of their seniority protection and receive a minor pay hike, or jump as high as $131,000 a year in salary and bonuses but face being fired for failing to do their job; nearly two years later, both sides remain at the negotiating table.

In Canada, no public-school teachers receive merit pay – and the unions in all the provinces are strongly opposed. But as the U.S. moves forward with the idea – and comes closer to finding methods that work – some education experts here also suggest it’s a discussion worth having, particularly as a new generation of teachers move into the classroom.

Merit pay, they argue, wouldn’t just reward good teaching: It may inspire success-oriented people to enter the field, knowing hard work is valued, and eventually make the job less appealing for unmotivated teachers, currently nearly impossible to dismiss.

But, as any teacher knows, the tricky part is grading fairly.


Mr. Phillips, 55 years old and happy in his classroom at Poplar Ridge Elementary School, a little west of Red Deer, doesn’t want merit pay. In fact, like many teachers, he is a bit insulted by the idea that more money might make him perform better in class. “If a person isn’t doing the job as well as they could be, and they aren’t willing to improve, they should be moved out,” he says.

He worries that teachers won’t be as keen to share ideas if they’re competing for bonuses, and he wonders who would be evaluating their work.

Teachers have valid reasons for being suspicious of merit pay, especially over the issue of how they would be assessed. If principals are part of the process, how will teachers be protected from personality clashes? Critics also point out that a merit program could be expensive and take money away from already underfunded classrooms.

Many proposals would link teachers’ incentives to students’ performances in standardized tests, but that is already the subject of criticism among educators, both for its potentially distorting effects on curriculum and classroom time and for its exclusive interest in certain subjects – math and science, for example, rather than drama or music.

How, too, would bonuses reflect the fact that subjects are interrelated – that a strong English teacher, for instance, makes a contribution to how well students learn math? Research also shows that good teachers tend to bring up the level of all teachers in a school. As Mr. Phillips says, merit pay may make them less likely to share best practices.

“There is so much more that goes on in classrooms, day in and day out, than simply standardized-test scores,” says Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. “There are so many different inequities for teachers that could come out of it that it’s unthinkable, quite frankly.”

“It’s a very challenging program to implement,” says Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has been studying merit pay for two decades.

She is not sure that more cash makes better teachers. “Fundamentally there’s a questionable assumption at the heart of it, and that is that teachers will respond to sums of money, which often are relatively small, and that they will work both harder and more effectively.”

Merit pay for teachers is not a new idea – it comes up every few decades when politicians become freshly worried about school performance. It has been a bigger issue in the U.S., where teachers receive far lower salaries than their Canadian counterparts. The last time it was seriously advanced in Canada was in Ontario under Conservative premier Mike Harris, but it was opposed by a teachers union already embittered by other education cuts, and never went anywhere.

Surveys show, though, that the next generation of teachers finds the idea more palatable. Dr. Johnson credits this in part to changes in the labour market: In the 1960s, pay was standardized in education to prevent discrimination against a largely female (and, in the U.S., minority-heavy) workforce.

“Now,” she says, “people who are becoming teachers can work in other fields and know that other fields operate differently with pay – their friends get huge pay raises, and pay is more important in society.

“And I think there’s just more sense that it wouldn’t be a bad thing, if it were well done.”

But the experiments don’t always produce clear results: In Denver, teachers who opted in to a merit-pay program did raise students’ performance, but they were also likely better teachers who knew they could get bonuses. And in one program in Texas, student performance didn’t improve with merit pay – though research suggests that program didn’t work because it distributed small bonuses among about 70 per cent of teachers in participating schools.


While the idea, as Dr. Johnson puts it, “may not be ready for prime time,” she points out that statistical methods of determining effective teachers have improved vastly in the past 10 years. One popular concept is to track student progress in a teacher’s class over three years, using forms of standardized testing that can adjust for variables such as socio-economic status.

While such a system may identify the best teachers, it doesn’t show less-successful educators ways to improve. Other merit-pay systems use a combination of testing and classroom evaluation, sometimes by independent observers rather than the principal.

Dr. Jackson insists that with the right data and expert analysis, it is possible to discern a good teacher clearly from a bad one (although many school districts don’t have the funds, expertise or even data to do it properly). In particular, he proposes students’ gains as a good measure – that is, tracking how much students improve over the course of the year. Research has found that teachers with poor skills may bring their students up only half a grade; the best teachers can advance their classes by more than a year and a half.

“What teachers are claiming is that even though there is no external reward for doing this, they are maximizing students’ welfare as it is,” he says. “That may be so, but it’s highly unlikely.”

Merit pay may also encourage teachers to train in subjects, such as math, where educators are in short supply, or to take posts at low-performing schools.

Another approach to performance pay that has been tried in the United States is to award it to entire schools rather than individuals, or some sort of combination. In those cases, all staff, from teachers to cafeteria workers, benefit; the collaborative nature of schools is rewarded; and everyone has an interest in improving student achievement.

Dr. Johnson considers this approach more effective than singling out superstar teachers. “It would promote schools paying close attention to how they were doing with their weakest students and encourage really shared responsibility for those students.”

In a rare Canadian instance of merit pay, the extra money must be used for professional development. At the Calgary Girls School, a privately run but publicly funded school in Alberta, teachers can receive $1,000 to cover the costs of attending workshops and taking university courses.

“Pretty much every teacher applies,” vice-principal Susan Farrell says, “and every teacher gets it.”

While Mr. Zwaagstra is a proponent of merit pay, he says it would work in Canada’s education system only with other reforms, such as making it easier to dismiss teachers for incompetence, more strictly assessing teachers before they get tenure (awarded in Canada after one to three years) and allowing parents to choose schools and have taxpayers’ money follow the student.

Merit pay will be a hard idea to sell here, but if it expands in the U.S. it is more likely to travel north. In the meantime, Ronald Blair, an award-winning social-studies teacher at Churchill Falls in Labrador – who taught his active, boy-heavy class about the First World War by running battle re-enactments in the schoolyard and who, like Mr. Phillips, rarely teaches the same lesson plan twice – echoes the views of his Alberta colleague.

“I have no problem with more accountability,” he says, willing to consider higher pay for better teachers. But then, proving he earned his federal teaching award, he asks: “But isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing anyway?”

Erin Anderssen is a Globe and Mail feature writer.


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