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Want Better Teachers? Merit Pay Isn't the Answer

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Evidence routinely demonstrates that strong education systems help build better health and social cohesion. To achieve strong school systems, one of the truisms of education now widely cited around the world is the critical importance of teachers. "The quality of a system," an influential McKinsey report noted in 2007, "cannot exceed the quality of the people in it."

What would it mean to improve the quality of teachers and teaching in Canadian schools? On this point ideas differ. One proposed solution is to improve pay and working conditions. From a very different point of view, others have advocated paying teachers based on student results, or making it easier to fire 'bad' teachers.

Both of these ideas have a kind of quick appeal, providing an easy way to address a difficult problem. But as H.L. Mencken said long ago, "For every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple and wrong." Much of what is being advocated in teacher policy fits that description.

The substantial international evidence on teaching quality suggests a few points to keep in mind. Teaching is a mass occupation, one of the largest in any country's labour force and involving 10 per cent or more of all university graduates. It cannot be highly selective and still produce the required numbers.

Teachers consistently report that the most powerful reward in their work is to see good outcomes for their students, or to have students tell them that their teaching made a positive difference. While pay matters (of course!), salary is not the primary reason people go into or stay in teaching.

Working conditions often matter more than pay. Many of the working conditions important to teachers are also quite consistent with research on good education policy, such as effective leadership or opportunities to learn and grow in their work.

By the way: High performing education systems tend to have strong teacher unions. There is no reason to think that strong unions are inconsistent with high quality education.

While pay for results is a seemingly attractive concept, virtually nobody in modern economies outside of sales people is currently paid based on measured outcomes as is being proposed for teachers. Other professionals may be paid on reputation or volume, but not directly on outcomes.

It is both more feasible and cheaper to help existing teachers improve their skills than it is to replace them with new people who might be better at the work. In that regard, it is helpful to focus on improving people's skills rather than improving teachers as persons. In other words, policy should focus on better teaching rather than better teachers.

Canada's 500,000 teachers already are already skilled and qualified compared to most other countries. It is hard to get into teacher education programs in Canada, and not easy, even after graduation, to get permanent employment as a teacher. We have low attrition among new teachers, meaning that people find the job satisfying. Since high attrition is expensive, low turnover is a good thing.

There are two important things we could do in addition to strengthen teaching in Canada. First, professional development for teachers continues to be a hit and miss affair that many teachers do not find valuable. Applying modern knowledge about staff development would see less focus on PD days and workshops, and much more on the integration of new learning into the daily fabric of life in schools.

Second, teaching would benefit from much stronger standards of practice, as exist in all other professions. These standards should be owned collectively by teachers, as they are by other professional groups. Based on research knowledge matched with practice experience, they would offer much more guidance to teachers than is currently given on effective ways to carry out their work.

The adoption of these two measures, which would largely be welcomed by teachers, would help Canada sustain a high quality teaching force and our current high levels of educational attainment.

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