Merit Pay and 8 Year Olds

Merit pay was a big conversation between my husband and myself last night.  What would happen to education, how it would affect us personally, what we might do if merit pay is instituted…..

But later that night I was driving my daughter to Brownies and we had a chat about her “allowance”.  She’s trying to save up for a Lego set and has a jar with a picture of the Lego set on it and a note of how much she needs in that jar before she can buy it.  She needs roughly $8.

We give her a standard weekly allowance (because I do want her to learn how to manage money) and she has expectations that she fulfills around the house.  But since she’s not content with having to save up slowly over time, she asked me what chores she could do around the house to earn her money faster.  Suddenly it hit me…..

Dear Lord, she’s asking for merit pay…….

We’ve tried this tactic with her in the past and here’s what it lead to:

1.  She only did the bare minimum to get the chores done.

2.  She learned short cuts on how to get it done quickly (shoving toys under her bed, putting all her clothes in the laundry hamper wether they were clean or not, rapidly taking everything off the table and just putting it all on the kitchen counter, etc.)

3.  Doing just enough chores to get the money she wanted and then stopping.

And eventually not even the dangling of money worked anymore.  She sneered at the chore list, stopped doing any of them, and instead argued for a raise in her allowance.  The “merit pay” was not enough incentive for her to do any of them anymore.

Ugh, being a parent is hard.  We stopped with the “chore list”.

But it made me wonder what would happen if merit pay is instituted here in Alberta.  Now while some of you might be thinking this is a ridiculous comparison, bear with me…..

How long will it take for some teachers to figure out what is the bare minimum required in order to get merit pay?  How long will it take for them to figure out what is truly emphasized (testing, extra curriculars?) and focus on that while dropping other things?  Or even worse, what if some teachers throw their hands up and say, this extra money isn’t worth it so I’m just not going to do anything and let someone else get the merit pay?

It’s been said this system is to reward the good teachers and encourage others to follow suit.  But what if it works in the opposite direction?  What if some of your good teachers start shoving good lessons under the bed?  What if they figure out exactly how much test prep to do in order to gain better scores?  What if they do “just enough” to get the merit pay and then stop whereas before they would have continued on with other programs?  Or ….what if the merit pay isn’t enough incentive?

Some people have said to me that this would never happen.  They have argued that the student should always come first and always be the priority.  And I 100% agree.  That’s why we have so many good teachers doing such good work and putting in hours far and above what they need to do.

As soon as you throw bonus money into the mix, all bets are off.  You’ve now changed the system and those ideals may no longer prevail.  It becomes a game.  Well, I used to run homework club after school but only a few kids were showing up.  So now I’ve scrapped that and I just do test after test after test in my class because it prepares them better, it increases my class average, and this way the whole class get it.  Sadly, a real teacher told me this once.  He is now retired.

I’m reminded of a time early on in my career where I had a principal who gave out these little trophies at staff meetings called “PAT” awards (as in, you deserve a pat on the back). You were supposed to nominate a fellow colleague in order to win one.  In the 2 years this award was given out I received it once (in June) and the reason given was that I was surviving first year teaching very well – geez, thanks.  A colleague of mine had less prep time then any of his other high school counterparts, supervised every school dance, ran a  rocket club, ran after school homework help, coached senior girls volleyball and after eighteen months of consistently “losing”, he finally looked at me and said….”What do I have to do to get one of these things?”  Some other teachers received the award many many times.  And reasons were given like, “Stayed after school to help with the band concert.”  While this was great, this teacher had done one thing in isolation on one night of her life while my other colleague had given up several hours.  Days even.

Good teachers often go without notice.  It’s not the reason why they do what they do.  They do it because that’s what the kids need.  And we don’t need any further recognition than that.  However, once you introduce a system of recognition, don’t be surprised if your teachers turn on you.  Don’t be surprised if they become bitter, resentful, and hurt.  This teacher was only around for a couple more years before we lost him.  I was sad to see him go.

Daniel Pink says the best way to honour what teachers do is to raise their base salary, not to encourage them to chase after some carrot you dangle in front of them.  Value what they do and pay them what they’re worth.  Most of us here in Alberta recognize that we are currently paid very well.  My husband and I are both teachers and we lead a comfortable life.  We own a nice house that we can afford, our kids are clothed and fed well, we pay our bills without difficulty and we even afford the odd trip here and there as a family.  Money is not the issue anymore and the sooner the Alberta government gets that, the better.

So back to my 8 year old.  My husband and I need to sit down and figure out what exactly it is that she is expected to do and pay her a fair value.  We will have this conversation with her and let her negotiate her own terms (she’s surprisingly perceptive for an 8 year old).  If she makes a fair request and we can afford it in our monthly budget, we will consider her terms.  In return, she will agree to what is expected of her and we will expect her to carry that out or she in in violation of the agreement and may be subject to forfeiting her allowance.  She’s 8 and she understands what consequences are.

I believe at the adult level we refer to this as collective bargaining.  And we refer to it as “salary”, not “merit pay”.

We stopped using the extra chore list.  Many countries have stopped using merit pay even though they had it once.  Why?  Neither or them worked.


About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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One Response to Merit Pay and 8 Year Olds

  1. David Hay says:

    Great post, I love the allowance and chores analogy.

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