Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Merit pay won't make better teachers

  • Print

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 a few years ago, "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. 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 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 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 school life.

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, and based on research knowledge matched with practical experience.

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.

Ben Levin, a former deputy education minister in Manitoba, is an expert adviser at EvidenceNetwork.ca, and a professor and Canada Research Chair in Education Leadership and Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 23, 2013 A11

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Winnipeg Cheapskate: Cheap summer weekends

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Horses enjoy a beautiful September morning east of Neepawa, Manitoba  - Standup Photo– Sept 04, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • A golfer looks for his ball in a water trap at John Blumberg Golf Course Friday afternoon as geese and goslings run for safety- See Joe Bryksa’s 30 day goose challenge- Day 24– June 15, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Will higher pork prices change your grocery-shopping habits?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google