The Question of Merit Pay
I was an elementary principal, not long into my administrative career when the superintendent of the district announced that he’d like to award merit pay to administrators. Looking back on the proposal, I think it was a prelude to a similar proposal for merit pay for teachers in the district, an idea that was beginning to gain some traction nationally.
The administrators met as a unit, and the superintendent pitched the proposal, asking us just to listen to his idea. The more experienced administrators asked a few questions for clarity’s sake. Then the superintendent left, leaving us to discuss the proposal.
There were about 20 of us, and we were loosely organized as a unit under a state organization that wasn’t really a union. I had far less experience as an administrator than some of the others, but I had been with the district long enough to know who the winners and losers would be under the superintendent’s proposal. While there would have been more winners than losers, the losers prevailed. “We can’t let them divide us like this,” the most veteran and least effective principal said.
Divide us? I thought. Nobody worried when I was paid the same as principals who ran schools half the size of mine. Nobody here had a problem when they cut my assistant. Nobody cared if I was assigned extra duties district-wide. Am I missing something?
Here was a chance for some of us to shine, I thought. If you don’t want to make the effort, that’s your choice. But if I want to, what’s the problem?
The proposal went nowhere, mirroring an earlier effort by the state to award merit pay. The result of that proposal was that all teachers got the merit bump so that it wasn’t “divisive” either.
Well, under the “some things never change” category we can now slide New York City’s pilot program to reward teachers whose students demonstrated achievement on standardized tests. The program was aimed at teachers in high poverty schools. Of course, the only way the union would agree to the proposal in the first place is if the entire school was awarded the bonuses, not the individual teachers who actually earned them.
Here’s what I don’t understand about this “divisiveness” argument: I wasn’t feeling too collegial after being denied a chance at merit pay by people who didn’t want to put in any more effort than they had to. In New York, schools received $1500 or $3000 for every union member in the school based on the school’s progress. The principal, the union leader, and two other staff members decided how to divide the money among the staff. Wonder how collegial the high performing teachers felt under those circumstances.