The Merit Pay Conundrum

By Naomi Dillon

What’s in a name? Plenty.

Throw the phrase “merit pay” out at a union meeting and watch the room freeze. Try “differentiated pay,” “cash incentives,” or “pay for performance” for teachers and you’ll encounter varying degrees of receptiveness.

To Wade Nelson, a professor of educational leadership at Minnesota’s Winona State University, the different terms are all smoke and mirrors.

“There’s lots of new terminology out there,” Nelson says. “But it all boils down to merit pay. … This is truly a recycled concept.”

After a series of marked failures in the 1980s, salary reform efforts in America’s school districts are experiencing a resurgence. Increasing numbers of school districts and states seem more willing to make adjustments to teacher pay to achieve better educational outcomes.

“In an era where there’s a strong push for results and improving student achievement, by leaving the pay system out, you’re saying, ‘We want you to work hard but not pay you for it,’” says Allan Odden, codirector of the University of Wisconsin’s Strategic Management of Human Capital in Public Education project. “But once you start shifting how you pay people, you start sending signals that the old pay game is changing and we’re going to be more strategic about the future.”

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