The Fix That Won’t: How to Pay Teachers less

This is the second in a four part series. I have a lot of thoughts about education. A lot. The system is broken and this junk ain’t fixing it. Part one here.

It was the second day of testing. I brought in The Princess Bride to watch  critically view. (For real though, parents, admin we were looking for archetypes and how the movie subverts them. You don’t have to worry, always standards driven up in my classroom. Always rigorous and relevant.) I had properly shamed my students for never having seen the movie and truly shamed the kid who dared to ask me “are we really gonna watch some princess movie?” (Education starts at home people! I am in charge of the classic literature, you are going to have to be responsible for pop-culture classic film.)

My students were quietly watching  critically viewing the movie digital text, and I was putting in grades. (This may sound like a minor deal, but I need you to know that our grading program is web-based and the entire school has less bandwidth cable than your house.) From the part of my brain that was carefully monitoring the noise level in the room I heard this line, “DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA THAT YOUR JOB IS ON THE LINE!”

Andre the Giant is pulling the entire party up the cliff, and the boss whose name I always forget, but the tiny bald guy played the dad of a friend on the Cosby show, he yells in frustration “DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA THAT YOUR JOB IS ON THE LINE!” and it is funny, to the audience, because it is completely obvious that job or not Andre the Giant is already going just as fast he can.

Despite my students protests I pressed the back button and watched the scene again. It was the perfect  metaphor for what is going on in education right now. This  is the way that merit pay is being instituted. As teachers are strapping their classes to their backs and climbing up an impossible cliff just as fast as they can we are being yelled at that we better kick it up a notch, because our paycheck is on the line.

NEWSFLASH: People who are seriously motivated by the big bucks don’t become teachers. I am not going to gripe about my pay check. I knew how much I was going to make when I signed up for this gig. I signed up for this gig because I believe in education as a way to empower students to rise out of whatever circumstance they find themselves in and live a beautiful life.

Teachers want their students to succeed. We are already doing every single thing we can think of to get our students to succeed. Threatening us with a pay cut if we don’t do better is not going to help. Because we are already doing everything we can think of. Really. I promise. This threat is coming out in one two-word phrase: merit pay.

So let’s talk about what I mean when I say merit pay. Saying merit pay is like saying “enough cheese” my idea of enough cheese and my girls’ idea of enough cheese are vastly different and still both far, far greater than what the USDA says is enough cheese (whatever, those people don’t know anything).

At its base teacher merit pay just means that you get money for doing certain things. Sometimes people think of it like an end of the year bonus, and sometimes it is like that, but as more and more states move to merit pay to get more federal funding, bonus isn’t what it is shaking out to be.

So, when I tell you I have a problem with merit pay, I am not whining about not getting a bigger bonus at the end of the year. I am whining about having my paycheck potentially cut in half. (We will get to the losing my license and getting fired part tomorrow.) I am speaking up about the fact that potentially, it could be more lucrative for me to quit my job as a certified teacher, become a substitute teacher and never have to write my own lesson plans again.

Take for example, the state of Georgia. If I read the legislation correctly, (and please Jesus let me be wrong) in the 2014-15 school year fifty percent of my paycheck will be based on merit pay. Not fifty percent of my bonus, not fifty percent of my raise, fifty percent of what they already pay me. So, if I make $40,000 I am now only guaranteed $20,000 of that. The rest depends on my students test scores. Because, while merit pay theoretically can be based on far more than test scores, practically speaking it is almost always based solely on how your students do on one lousy test.

Merit pay doesn’t mean how much extra are you going to get, it means how much of your paycheck are they going to keep. 

The standards are so impossible that I am beginning to suspect that the legislature saw a way to make massive, massive cuts to teacher pay and get away with it. As it currently stands, merit pay will be handed out based on two questions. Did your students make the raw score that means they have passed? and Did your students make improvements while in your classroom? (25% of your merit pay for each metric)

So, if I work with high needs students who are way less likely to make the cut, if I have a deep passion for English language learners, if I am really great at teaching special ed kids, if I long to make a difference in the lives of kids whose lives are being adversely affected by systemic poverty, I won’t get all of my paycheck. These kids are the least likely to make the raw score needed for a million complicated reasons, none of which are that their teachers are terrible.

Meanwhile, if I teach honors kids, if I am really great at taking a kid who is used to sitting back and raking in the A’s, if I know how to push them to write a better paper, solve a harder equation, and inspire them to do something truly remarkable, I will be punished too. While teaching honors classes means you are pretty much guaranteed to receive the piece of merit pay marked “raw score,” good luck getting your students to improve. If they come in with a 98%, you have to get them to 100% or you don’t get your improvement merit pay.

I work at a school that is regularly named in US News “top schools in the nation.” Never, not even one time has a students scored a 100% on any EOCT. Ever. Now, all the kids in your honors class will have to make a score that has never even happened once in order for you to earn all of your paycheck. Pardon me if I am beginning to suspect that merit pay is just a thinly veiled attempt at paying teachers less.

The most irritating thing about this whole merit pay business, is that really, when done holistically, teachers are generally for merit pay. There are lots of ways to do it well. My personal favorite is a points based system. The teachers choose from a list the ways that they will earn their merit pay. You earn ten points, you earn 100% of said pay. So, you are a class advisor, 2 points. You work at a high needs school, 4 points. You developed curriculum that the rest of the school now uses, 3 points. You took on the added responsibility of leading a program for your principal, 4 points. Test scores are just a portion of the points you can earn. Denver school systems use this system, and it works. It gives teachers the added benefit of being paid for the extra work that they do, and it still takes into account test scores. This system treats teachers like the holistic professionals they are and trusts them to do good work, while still paying them for it.

But, as we learned yesterday, teachers aren’t allowed to have opinions about how they should get paid. If they are the saint teacher they don’t care about making a living wage they will do this job no matter what! Only the lazy teachers are the ones whining about the pay and they don’t deserve the money anyway.

Teaching is complicated, merit-based-pay need to respect the complications and see the teacher as more than just a test score factories. Merit pay needs to be based on the idea that teachers are already doing the very best we can. Putting our paychecks on the line won’t kick anybody into a higher gear. We were already going as hard as we know how.

26 thoughts on “The Fix That Won’t: How to Pay Teachers less

  1. Thank goodness I got out when I did.. think of the mess I would be if I had to hear this myself. You’d be scraping me off the floor for sure. **hugs** to you for going through this!

  2. From one hard-working teacher to another– amen, sister! You have articulated the situation so clearly and perfectly. Keep fighting the good fight!!

  3. As yet, my state hasn’t moved to merit pay. And it sounds like I’m pretty lucky that they haven’t because I can guarantee our legislature would not institute a reasonable system like the Denver system you describe. Here’s how it will play out for me: first off, keep in mind I am making 32% less this year than I was 3 years ago. My take home pay is now what it was in 1997. I teach in a very low income district–98% of our students qualify for free lunch. I teach severely emotionally impaired children, who often receive no medical care or therapy for their various mental health issues. We have no honor’s classes in elementary. I am not being allowed to leave special education to teach general education because my degree is “so valuable and rare”. My state’s evaluation system says that I am “highly effective”. According to your pay system though, I would almost certainly not get any merit pay despite the fact that all 6 of the principals under which I worked have stated that I am one of the finest teachers they have ever seen. How is this fair?

  4. Abby, I suspect your premise is correct. Have you read the “blueberry story”? If not, here’s a link: It’s about a businessman who got his eyes opened to the real work of teaching.

    And Aimee, I, too was “stuck” in special ed for the first six years I taught, for the very same reason you were given. I burned to a frazzle at the end, and did not go back to education for another six years after. Even then, I was lucky to get a job facilitating IEP meetings, since I was literally afraid to start teaching again at that point. I hope you are not subjected to the conditions Abby has posted!

  5. I love the Blueberry story. How do you initiate a powerful letter writing, texting, media blitz regarding the actions of the GA legislature? What does the PTA know? Who is allowed to tell them?

      • A few starting suggestions:
        Put together resources such as: phone and addy for state senators who voted for the law, a facebook page, and an online petition at a site like, have an alternative (like the Denver system) that can be implemented instead of the current fiasco.
        Get in touch with your union and PTA. See if you can include a letter in PTA newsletter explaining why this law will hurt students as well as teachers. Include links/listings of the resources you’ve gathered.
        Get in touch with an other teacher, student or school groups you know and ask them to support your petition by writing bout it in newsletters, spreading the word on social media, officially endorsing your alternative system, etc.
        Get in touch with journalists who cover education and see if any of them are interested in an doing an article on the pros and cons of different merit pay systems, or if you get a strong response to your initial outreach, they might go for an article on the growing rejection of the current merit pay system.
        Your state and national level union divisions (assuming your union is that large) are used to lobbying legislatures. See if they have resources you can use.

  6. Abby,
    WoW. I was incensed when I read about how Georgia teachers may now earn half their pay – so not right! I like the Denver system you described as well. There are so many things a teacher cannot control in regard to learning and student performance. A deeper issue that you slightly touched on is, “Education starts at home people! I am in charge of the classic literature, you are going to have to be responsible for pop-culture classic film).” Let’s be real here, if parents really thought about the impact of merit pay on their children’s education, perhaps they’d stand up more and fight for the best their children deserve. Maybe they’d even cooperate and partner with teachers more, realizing that the job of educating the future is NOT the sole responsibility of the teacher. That would be an unwarranted and heavy responsibility. At the end of the day, parents are responsible and accountable for their children first and foremost. Teachers are not the answer to the deeper ills of the education system. It was broken long before bad teachers broke it. It broke when less parents to action, when more government took over, when communities cared less, and when money became an issue. It was and always will be about the students. The type of merit pay that flat out demeans the demanding work of teacher maybe the downfall of a good school becoming a has-been. That would be sad.

  7. Always amazed at your insights and your crafting of words to tell a story. This subject is something I didn’t have any idea of, but you have such a grasp of the imbalance of the system, this should be published in a newspaper in Atlanta, sent to the State Legislators, put in a public forum before it is too late to save anything that may be GOOD for the students. You are doing a remarkable job with your thoughts into words. Keep up your God given skills.

  8. As a teacher, I’ve had this discussion a lot. My mother and sister in law teach in public schools, and I would not want merit based pay for them for the exact reasons you mentioned. On the other hand, rather ironically, when I got my job in a private school, it really wasn’t a “real” salary. I had to show my merit and why I was worth more after a couple of years. 🙂 But that’s a really special situation.

  9. So encouraging to read the comments from non-teachers on here! I’m weary of hearing over & over how teachers need to be kept in line and so our pay is getting cut. I always assume that the general public either agrees with this or just doesn’t care, but I forget that non-educators may not fully understand the system or even pay attention when it’s on the news.

    • Katie, as a non-teacher, when I fist heard about merit pay, it made sense. After all, every job I’ve ever had, my ability to get a raise has been based an evaluations of how well I did my work, why should teaching be different? It’s only as I learn more of the various ways merit pay is being instituted and the messed up methods of evaluation that are being proposed that I understand just how problematic this ‘simple’ reform really is.

  10. Abby, Great piece. Once again the word is not the thing. Merit doesn’t mean merit (merit implies additional compensation for being meritorious) and pay doesn’t mean pay (it means a cut in pay). Thanks for teaching your kids and your readers,

  11. I used to be an elementary school teacher and I really get what you are saying. There is so much out of the control of the teacher. You teach in a really good school, though, where you are probably surrounded by excellent teachers who really are doing their best every day. I taught in schools like that, but I started in an inner city school with a bunch of incredibly bad teachers and administrators. These people actually changed the answers on the kids’ standardized test forms! I had 5th graders who couldn’t read who scored in the 90th percentile on the test because they changed the answers! Most of my colleagues at this school ran their classes like prisons where kids were copying the dictionary as punishments. There was very little teaching/learning going on. This was partly due to the terrible administration which offered no support at all for dealing with problem behavior kids. Even in the better schools I got to eventually there were teachers just cruising along, blaming the kids who didn’t learn rather than puzzling out how to reach them. There was often an attitude of responsibility for the teaching, but not the learning. I think merit pay is a bad attempt to either motivate or get rid of these teachers who are coasting. It’s not going to work, of course, because even in a place like Denver that you describe, the real focus, student learning, will get lost in the extracurriculars. Who cares if a teacher does anything in the school at all if the kids in that teacher’s class aren’t learning? I agree that testing and merit pay, even if done better than usual, don’t really fix the problems we have in education in this country.

  12. Great post. Trying to apply the industrial model to teaching always reminds me of that horrible textbook in Dead Poet’s society where the author tries to apply numerical scores to poetry. Talk about missing the point!

  13. Abby,
    I work in industry and we have merit based bonuses and merit based pay increases but we never have our salary in jeopardy in regards to merit. That sounds ridiculous to have a portion of your salary up for grabs. I will say even with the merit based bonuses and salary increases I do not believe it works well even in industry. Sometimes it comes down to who is liked and who is not and who works in a glamorous part of the business and who toils on issues no one cares about unless they go to hell.
    I do wish teachers were paid better and much more fairly.

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  16. You are again so clear and intelligent in your explanation. Florida is in a state of disarray about Merit Pay as well. Guess what…it’s not funded! Big surprise. The state is saying to each county “you have to do this, find a way to pay for it” so the difference will wind up being barely over $1,000 for teachers who check all the boxes. However, the consequences for not reaching the evaluation goal will be dire. If you don’t meet the state projected matrix (which is different for each teacher and student), you could find yourself out of a job within two school years and I believe have your license revoked. This is based on something called the Value Added Measure which lawmakers are trying to set saying our standardized test scores can weigh more than your classroom teaching if you don’t meet the aforementioned matrix. I’m pretty sure our senators wouldn’t like us to rate them based on an intern’s performance on a single day at a single task. But for teachers, that’s fine.

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