Rethinking Teacher Compensation Part II: A Brief Critique of Neo-Liberal Compensation Reform

Yesterday we explored the history and rationale of traditional teacher compensation practices.  Today we will take apart some of the more toxic neo-liberal ideas.  Tomorrow, we’ll look at some solutions.
Along comes neo-liberal education reform, built around the idea that the invisible hand of markets and competition can solve educational problems.  A whole raft of activity follows.  Reformers talk about billions spent each year compensating teachers for master’s degrees that are disconnected from student outcomes.  Municipalities and school boards balk at funding automatic step raises on the grounds that longevity does not equal quality.  The linchpins of tenure and seniority come under assault on the somewhat contradictory grounds that tenure protects bad teachers and seniority encourages the mal-distribution of good teachers.
An alphabet soup of strategic compensation initiatives seeks to incentivize desired teacher behaviors.  At their most toxic, these schemes merely reward (or fire) teachers for test scores.  The real problem with doing this is that it turns education into a commodity.  Produce more, we reward you more.  I wonder what reasonable person would want to commoditize education.  Ultimately education is a quality more than a quantity, a process more than a product. 
One dimensional solutions like merit pay (and its various sophisticated modern flavors) take institutions that can only be optimally effective by means of a culture of collaboration, and incentivize competition.  By making people compete for a limited pool of merit pay, one encourages the withholding of information and the breakdown of trust.  There is no faster way to destroy a school culture.  Private industry discovered this many years ago.  Why half baked incentive schemes that failed in industry are being recycled in education is beyond me.
Let me repeat – competition in education is bad because optimal performance in schools requires profoundly collaborative cultures.  This is the Achilles heel of neo-liberalism.  You can’t succeed at this endeavor when you make teachers and schools behave like too many piglets at too few teats.
The flaw in pay for performance is that while the goal is 100% success, performance pay requires winners and losers because there is a finite amount of money to dedicate to the purpose – that’s called budgeting.   So there has to be losers.  We already have a system with winners and losers - that’s the problem we are trying to solve.  Do we want to put that system on steroids?
Finally, one cannot ignore the fact that there are lazy and duplicitous politicians and policy makers who are trying to steal veteran educators' deferred compensation so they can evade the tough work of raising the revenues necessary to fund the public good.  Schemes that promise to “do more with less” are the snake oil of education policy. 
Those who would end the defined benefit pensions of teachers and other public workers on whatever spurious grounds, and after failing to fund them properly for decades, turn our government and society into a giant kleptocracy.
The single salary schedule and its associated mechanisms may be a relic of another time, but, by side stepping the more poisonous effects of competition, traditional teacher compensation practices at least leave the possibility of collaborative school cultures and basic fairness intact.


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