February 21, 2023

P. L. Thomas: There’s No Merit In Merit Pay Plan for South Carolina Teachers

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P. L. Thomas is a South Carolina educator who believes the “new” ideas for recruiting and retaining teachers in South Carolina are not winners.


I am in my fifth decade as an educator in SC, beginning as a high school English teacher in Upstate SC in 1984. Over that career I have witnessed one frustrating pattern: A constant state of education reform that recycles the exact same crisis rhetoric followed by the same education reforms.

Over and over again.

In fact, in very recent history, SC and the nation have experienced a high intensity focus on teacher quality, teacher evaluation, and teacher merit pay models under the Obama administration.

And just like in the so-called real world of business, merit pay models for teachers have failed.

Under Obama and then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, federal and state policy helped implement teacher evaluation and pay schemes modeled on Bill Gates’s use of stack ranking. Notably this value-added model of teacher evaluation and pay was famously heralded by the media when Michelle Rhee was chancellor of DC schools.

However, over time, Rhee’s tenure was unmasked as mostly a fraud but also as extremely harmful for teachers and students.

Thomas notes some of the research that unveils the weakness of merit pay, then he breaks down the issues.

Merit pay fails education, teachers, and students in the following ways:

  • Merit pay assumes workers need motivation to work harder; teachers are often overworked and their ability to be effective is not a result of how hard they are working, but the conditions under which they work.
  • Merit pay is often linked to standardized testing in education. As a result, merit pay incentivizes teaching to the tests and corrupts evaluation systems intended to measure learning.
  • Merit pay creates a culture of competition, instead of cooperation. Research also shows that competition is more harmful than cooperation, especially in the field of education where all educators should be invested in the success of all students.
  • Measurable student achievement, mostly through standardized testing, is more heavily linked to out-of-school factors (60-80%) than to in-school factors or teacher quality (10-15%). Therefore, merit pay overemphasizes direct and measurable teacher impact and often holds teachers and students accountable for factors beyond their control.

Policy makers in SC are faced with two facts: (1) Teacher pay is important to address and long overdue in the state; however, (2) merit pay is an ineffective and even harmful approach to addressing pay and teacher shortages.

Read the full piece here. Commentary: There’s no merit in merit pay plans for rewarding, retaining SC teachers (The Post and Courier) | dr. p.l. (paul) thomas (radicalscholarship.com)

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