Duncan, States, & Merit Pay

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said to officials at the National Science Board today that to solve the problem of finding good math and science teachers we should pay them more money. In Duncan’s words, “We pay everybody the same. We have areas of critical need- math, science, foreign language, and special education in some places. I think we need to pay a premium for that” (Holland, 2009). I have,in previous posts,addressed some of the concerns of teachers unions surrounding tying teacher pay to student standardized test scores. But in all likelihood, systems that differentiate teacher pay are an impending reality for most public school systems, if for no other reason than the opportunity to get additional federal funding. There are many different ways that this can be done, but as state education leaders move in that direction, my hope is that differentiated pay is used as a tool recruit and retain effective teachers.

What do I mean by effective? I mean teachers that get the job done. Researchers and practitioners agree that effective teachers are those that posses both the content knowledge AND pedagogical skill to bring about gains in student learning. Recent trends in legislation seems to place much greater emphasis on teacher content knowledge, but a high school teachers’ expertise in physics is of no use unless she/he can relay their understanding to their students. If he/she can not, then school districts are merely paying folks to stand in front of classrooms and be smart. That does students no good at all. Many of us have “not so fond” memories of brilliant college professors who stood at the front of the class and “taught” for an hour three times a week, and yet we learned absolutely nothing. That is not what we want to replicate in our K-12 classrooms.

So as states start to flesh out proposals for the new Race to the Top competition, my hope is that they will use differentiated pay to attract and retain good teachers; not just teaching applicants with impressive resumes (i.e. prestigious college, high gpa, Praxis test scores, experience outside of teaching), but teachers who can bring about student learning. The purpose for all of this must be student learning. That’s all that counts.


Holland, S. (2009, August 25). U.S. students fall behind counterparts in math, science, analysis says. CNN.com. Retrieved August 26, 2009, from cnnwire.blogs.cnn.com.

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