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Merit Pay Lacks Merit in Education

by J. Michael Atherton


According to the New Hampshire Republican platform they would have us “Eliminate tenure and institute merit pay” for all teachers at all levels of education.


This business-based attitude generates several problems when shoe-horned into the school setting. Most importantly: schools aren’t businesses. Republicans push business goals that fail dismally in schools. Profits, for example, dominate all business thinking. Schools, in contrast, aim at learning, education, scholarship, and even wisdom. Some schools, such as for-profit universities, require a profit; however, even these schools must elevate learning over profits or students will leave.

Learning and wisdom grow only in an atmosphere that fosters self-determination, autonomy, and free thinking. Promoting free thought does not justify teaching crackpot ideas, such as the universal distrust of vaccines, creationism, and denying the human causes of climate change. Encouraging self-determination means there should be no regulation that allows a university president to dictate what the faculty thinks. Hence the need for a certain amount of freedom. Not absolute freedom, just a certain amount.


The call for merit pay attacks this freedom in a fundamental way: whoever decides who has merit, holds all the power. This decision-point creates a stranglehold on educators, especially people who think differently from those in power. New Hampshire’s motto “Live Free or Die” suggests Granite Staters should appreciate the need to protect, demonstrate, and perpetuate free thinking at every level of education. This cannot occur in a merit pay system because it allows those in power to punish anyone whose ideas they dislike. Institutionalized merit pay lays the groundwork to change the state motto to “Obey or Die”.


Merit pay would have a chilling effect on thinking throughout the entire school system.


Educators would worry about reprisals if they departed from the party line. They would thus gear their teaching to please those who hold the power of the purse. To think otherwise is to think either (1) income issues don’t affect teachers or (2) that educators would sacrifice their jobs in order to defend an educational innovation. Both views fail because, like the rest of us, educators (a) need an income and (b) seldom seek martyrdom.


Photo: Freepik

Tenure is not a cash reward like merit pay. It is a recognition by peers. Significantly, it allows educators to explore new ideas. Educators achieve tenure only after years of publicly demonstrated accomplishments, such as, the publication of articles or books, presentations often on the international stage, program restructuring across the institution, and innovative teaching techniques. A qualified tenure team uses quantifiable and publicly known criteria, and are themselves free from the influence of administrators.


Merit pay, in contrast, awards cash sums to those who produce high test scores. Such an approach promotes teaching to the test. While test scores offer a metric, they measure only a small part of learning. Test scores measure how well-prepared students were for a given test on a given day. Merit pay makes achieving high test scores the singular purpose for students and, unsurprisingly, resembles the singular quest for profits in business thinking. Merit pay narrows the educational experience to accumulating scores, where tenure makes education expansive, exploratory, challenging, and innovative.


Merit pay could promote teaching to the test. Photo: Wadi Lissa/Unsplash

Once granted, tenure has the opposite effect of merit pay. Instead of trying to please the leader to get more merit cash, tenured educators feel free to seek autonomy, mastery, and meaning in their profession. Questing for these goals is hard work, but these three, not more cash, give educators the drive to continue to produce. While tenure allows educators to explore ideas without worry, tenure is not absolute. Tenured people get fired. But firing occurs only after public hearings, the impartial examination of evidence, and a consensus of qualified people. Poor educators can be fired.


A word on tenured faculty who seem to have retired early. This can and does occur; however, the presence of poor educators indicates an imperfect system, not that we need to distrust all educators. Tenured faculty tend to increase their educational productivity because only by doing so can they continue to pursue the three things that drive all humans: meaning, autonomy, and mastery. (1)

Reducing educational motivation to cash incentives reveals how badly the NH Republican platform missed the mark. They apply inappropriate business-based criteria to education because they think one size fits all. Republicans would stuff free thinking into the merit pay box, cut off anything sticking out, and claim victory. They fail to see that while business ideas fit business, they have limited value outside the business setting. For example, no one uses a business model to run their family. What does it mean to fire an unruly child? Could a Quality Control Officer maintain household harmony? Business thinking is not the only useful way of thinking; nevertheless, Republicans crave a simple life, not one full of pesky ideas that challenge their worldview. Instead of expanding their thinking to greet the world, Republicans want to shrink the world to fit their narrow viewpoint. Republicans should stop stuffing education into the business box and start expanding their minds to embrace the richness of our world.

Asking for expansiveness may go too far. Republicans have already thrown their merit pay dart at a blank wall and gleefully paint a bullseye around it so they can claim victory.


About the author


J. Michael Atherton (Mike) has retired from 30 years of teaching philosophy (after 20 years of teaching a variety of subjects from elementary to graduate school). He spent four years in the Peace Corps in Swaziland (now Eswatini), followed by marriage to Cynthia Walter, the birth of their first child, and a PhD all at the University of Chicago. They moved to Southwest Pennsylvania where Cynthia taught ecology and he taught philosophy while they raised two daughters. They moved to Dover in 2019 to be near their two grandsons in Maine. He has consistently found the Dems to be a group that publicly and privately follows their stated values: compassion, honesty, integrity, respect the dignity of all people, expanded freedom, responsible citizenship, promoting civil society, and protecting our environment. And they are great fun to be around. A winning combination!


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