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Merit Pay



Those in government who would like to bring about the demise of public education in the interest of privatization have a multi-faceted approach. Among them is paying teachers based on the test scores of children. Plain and simple this is an attack on public education and those who teach in the public schools. "Merit pay won’t make our classrooms less crowded, won’t make our schools safer, won’t get parents more involved in their children’s schoolwork… won’t improve teaching or pupil learning…(it) would encourage divisive competition in a profession that requires cooperation and teamwork…(and it would be unfair given the uncontrollable factors) that children’s learning is also affected by circumstances related to their home environment, health care, nutrition, and other factors", so says Adam Urbanski, in MERIT PAY WON’T WORK IN SCHOOLS.

Adds, former NEA and former WEAC Executive Director TERRY HERNDON, "The educational establishment has been schooled by experience and KNOWS WELL THAT MERIT PAY WILL NOT SOLVE ANY OF THE REAL PROBLEMS…AND WILL CREATE STILL MORE PROBLEMS."


Since 1993, Governor THOMPSON has set his sights on public education and public educators. In the interest of reducing taxes and providing greater wealth to his friends, WMC and those among its members, those large businesses and the conservative, anti-public education foundations they have established, the Thompson Administration has engineered, by a variety of means, the move toward privatizing education. In his efforts to privatize education to bring about investment opportunity for his big business friends, those who bought his election and the elections of his appointees to the Supreme Court, THOMPSON made, among the major components in his 1993 Budget, the shocking and dramatic proposals of REVENUE CONTROLS on school districts and wage controls (QEO) on teachers.

Known as THOMPSON’S LAWS, revenue controls and the QEO have had a disastrous impact on education and on educators. In annual surveys cooperatively undertaken since 1993 by WEAC and the Association of School District Administrators, superintendents across Wisconsin have blasted THOMPSON’S LAWS as being detrimental to the education of children. Of the superintendents responding to the survey, 81% said that delaying maintenance or improvements have had a negative effect on their district. Sixty-seven percent said that their forced delay of the planned purchase of updated texts and curricular materials has harmed educational opportunities. The March 2000 WEAC News and Views reported that, "on average, districts made 11.2 cuts in 1998-99, and superintendents rated 52% of the cuts ‘negative’ or ‘very negative’" to education. According to the WEAC article, "On average revenue controls forced the typical district to make cuts that harmed the
quality of education…that is on top of a series of budget cuts made over the previous 5 years since revenue controls have been having an impact."

With the impact of the revenue controls, and the federal mandate (IDEA) to provide for children with special education needs, THOMPSON’S LAW cuts even deeper into regular education. THOMPSON’S intent to bring about friction between regular and special educators was rapidly realized, as they advocated for the needs of their students, given the insufficient funds available for teachers to meet the needs of all children under their charge. According to WEAC News and Views, March 2000, "In one district, it was reported that the priority given to special education funding has created ‘a general attitude of resentment’ from staff, students and parents, ‘and a draining of funds for other programs’."

THOMPSON’S BUDGETS since 1993 have targeted education in favor of his intent that the advancement of privatization and school choice would be much easier when teachers are in conflict with each other. AND it’s working. WEAC’s advocacy is being brought to a halt, and its political machine becoming less and less effective. WEAC leadership is falling more and more into line with the mild-mannered, do nothing NEA and its appeasement of the business establishment. NEA would rather cooperate with the creation of charter schools, school choice (shifting money from public to parochial schools), promoting merit/performance-based pay and absurd hoops for teachers to jump through in order to gain and renew licensure, than be called a Union which promotes collective bargaining and member advocacy.

The impact of THOMPSON’S LAWS on educators continues to be disastrous. WEAC recently reported that in "1996-97, Wisconsin’s average teacher salary exceeded the national average by $400, or l.l6%. In contrast, the median household income in Wisconsin exceeded the national average by over $3600, or 9.82%. If Wisconsin teachers were paid in proportion to what private sector workers made in Wisconsin, teachers would receive pay at 109.82% of the national average. Nationally, the average teacher makes 105.3% of the U.S. median household income…Wisconsin’s teachers make 97% of Wisconsin’s median household income." While Wisconsin’s teachers are losing ground, the income of other state residents has been steadily rising. According to WEAC research, salary gains made in the 1980’s to catch up with inflation are being eroded because of the QEO. The annual wage increases of teachers have been so limited that in some cases teachers’ wages were actually reduced. According to WEAC, the cumulative increase in the average teacher’s salary since 1993, the advent of THOMPSON’s LAW,HAS BEEN 8.72%, AS COMPARED TO THE CUMULATIVE INCREASE IN WISCONSIN PER CAPITA INCOME OF 20.15%. The annual negotiated increases have gone from an average of 6.15% during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s to 2.18% since the 1993 enactment of Thompson’s Laws. The impact on one’s lifetime earnings is incomprehensible. For example, if wage increases had not been halted by Thompson’s QEO and had continued at an annual rate of 6.15%, the average teacher’s wage would be 30% higher today and teachers would not be exiting the profession for greener pastures. According to WEAC, because of the QEO, teachers in Wisconsin will lose 25% of their purchasing power over the next 25 years, while other Wisconsin workers gain purchasing power. The Department of Revenue’s economic forecast is for the general Wisconsin population’s per capita income to increase by 34% greater than inflation, compared to teachers LOSING 25%. WEAC research illustrates that when comparing a state’s median income to teacher income, Wisconsin now ranks 33rd in the country.


While we teachers watch our standard of living decline, WEAC, rather than advocating for the demise of the QEO and Revenue Controls has spent its time and energy first acquiescing to and then advocating, in VIOLATION of the will of their members as expressed in WEAC Continuing Resolution C-18, for such absurd proposals as THREE TIER LICENSURE, and, in VIOLATION OF WEAC Continuing Resolution C-36, in favor of PERFORMANCE BASED (MERIT) PAY. WEAC leaders have engaged in such activity even though Continuing Resolution C-36 states, "The Council believes that PERFORMANCE PAY SCHEDULES, such as merit pay, are inappropriate.

Terry Craney, however, said in response to THOMPSON’S proposal, "We (WEAC) are willing to pursue discussions with the governor and others…we will seek some common ground."

WEAC leaders must understand that there is no common ground on the topic of performance based pay. WEAC members, through the RA, HAS GIVEN THE LEADERSHIP NO LATITUDE. Representatives to the RA understand that giving in on this subject can well lead to the end of the Union’s ability to advance the rights and economic interests of its members, and leave the Union too weak to uphold the rights of its members.

THOMPSON’Sproposal to create a teacher bonus plan, "an award for achievement" of $1.6 million is no more than a WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING. It is like throwing a poisoned steak to starving dogs. The $1.6 million is tainted. It is simply another means of THOMPSON pandering to the business community by creating a device which will THROW A BONE to a few teachers, and will cause even greater strife among teachers, when the few are rewarded. Certainly it will cause a chilling effect in cooperation and sharing among teachers. Like REVENUE CONTROLS and the PEER REVIEW associated with THREE TIER LICENSURE, pay for performance will cause greater friction among teachers, will weaken the hard-fought-for Collective Bargaining Agreements and further fractionalize Union members. Let us fight the QEO and Revenue Controls; not take the tainted meat.

PAYING FOR BETTER TEACHING: MERIT PAY AND ITS ALTERNATIVES, a publication authored by Samuel Bachorach, et. al., the dark side of performance based pay is clearly set forth. Among its premises are "students are seen as a means to the end… the focus is excessively on those criteria used to judge performance, and the form of teaching will be highly directive…Low performing students may be put under too much pressure by teachers whose incomes partly depend on the students". Among the conclusions of the publication is, "This is exactly the wrong direction in which to move education…it would change the relationships between teachers and students. Poor students would no longer pose challenges, they would pose threats…." Finally, it is stated that merit pay will harm teacher recruitment and increase teacher turnover at a time when teacher supply is rapidly diminishing.

Teachers have long fought merit pay and, across the U.S., they continue the fight for the very same reasons mentioned above. The April 23, 2000 CHICAGO TRIBUNE contained an article, "Teachers give poor grades to merit pay". The article began, "The Los Angeles Board of Education hit a brick wall with unionized teachers recently when it unveiled a proposal aimed at rewarding the best and brightest among them. Similarly, resistance has been mounting among New York City teachers against a proposal by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to pay bonuses of up to $4000 to summer school teachers whose students show the most improvement.

The TRIBUNE states that, "Unions in Los Angeles and New York City grumble that merit pay fosters an atmosphere in which teachers compete rather than cooperate with one another, avoid low performing students or teach only in a way to boost students’ test scores so they can win their bonuses."


Hasn’t the Governor and our WEAC leadership put us into a fine kettle of fish? Craney’s comments have put us behind the proverbial eight ball. There is no way to come out of this untarnished, but fight we must, or our future and that of our families will suffer to the end of time! WEAC and NEA leaders, to advantage their own images rather than advocating for their members, have danced with management and academicians who promote merit pay.

Former NEA Executive Director and former WEAC Executive Director TERRY HERNDON wrote of merit pay, "school people would like to accommodate and thereby dispose of the ‘red herring’ and get to the real stuff; but many see that the RISKS of doing so are unacceptable." HERNDON stated that "the educational establishment has been schooled by experience and knows well that MERIT PAY WILL NOT solve any of the real problems that they face and WILL CREATE STILL MORE PROBLEMS. Therefore, the short term political deal is a bad deal in that short term political gains will quickly dissipate amid larger, long term problems…." Among the topics developed in HERNDON’S paper are:

  • merit pay systems can institutionalize the acceptability of mediocrity
  • merit pay systems can be driven more by political than professional considerations
  • merit pay systems can complicate the remediation of performance problems among teachers
  • merit pay plans might stifle extra effort
  • merit pay plans can require arbitrary comparison and contrast of functions
  • merit pay systems can induce unpleasant competition within faculties

HERNDON says that "merit pay by any other name (e.g. performance based pay) is beset with the problems of merit pay...The nation must address the real and serious problems associated with providing universal, free, high quality education for children. It must not be diverted from this challenge by politicians who prefer simple solutions to non-problems or by the desire to scapegoat either politicians or educators."

Alfie KOHN, an author who was a speaker at this year’s WASB Convention, and author of PUNISHED BY REWARDS, has been one of the most outspoken critics of performance based compensation/merit pay. In a MILWAUKEE JOURNAL-SENTINEL article, KOHN is described as going "toe to toe" with Governor THOMPSON over the issue of performance based pay. The JOURNAL-SENTINEL says that Thompson told those attending the WASB Convention "that linking teachers’ pay to how they perform their jobs is ‘an idea whose time has come’. This same rhetoric is being preached by most Republican governors who are puppets of big business and have as their agenda the privatization of public education. KOHN’S retort to THOMPSON’S PROPOSAL was that "pay for performance was an idea that had NEVER WORKED IN EDUCATION AND WOULD HARM THE PURSUIT OF GENUINE EXCELLENCE."

The Journal-Sentinel reported that KOHN said Thompson’s approach to testing students "accelerates an approach that is consistent with the WORST KIND OF TEACHING. He said that ‘rigorous’ is a word that politicians use that really means ‘MORE ONEROUS’ and has little to do with teaching students what they really need in life." KOHN, according to the article, said that, "the high-standards movement contradicts what is known about how children really learn and that it really means doing what has been done before, but doing it ‘harder, stronger, tougher, meaner’ – and ultimately not productively."

KOHN reportedly responded to THOMPSON’S criticism that "pay for performance would interfere with teachers doing work genuinely aimed at promoting learning…that many social science studies have shown that ‘the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward’ and that pay for a performance HARMS cooperation among teachers."

MERIT PAY WON’T WORK IN SCHOOLS, a paper by Adam Urbanski was discussed in EDUCATION WEEK, January 15, 1999. Urbanski is quoted as saying, "Anyone who promotes merit pay MUST BELIEVE THAT TEACHERS ARE BEST MOTIVATED BY FINANCIAL INCENTIVES. They assume that teachers could do a better job, but they are holding back because there is not enough in it for them. WRONG." Urbanski continues, "The WORST THING ABOUT TYING PAY TO PERFORMANCE in education is that it leads to HARMFUL PRACTICE for the very students that it purports to help. Children’s learning suffers when TEACHERS ARE FORCED TO WORRY MORE ABOUT TEST SCORES THAN ABOUT REAL LEARNING."

Urbanski says that, "merit pay WON’T make our classrooms less crowded, WON’T make our schools safer, WON’T get parents more involved in their children’s schoolwork, WON’T end social promotions, WON’T lead to higher behavioral and academic standards, and it certainly WON’T improve teaching or pupil learning…that merit pay would encourage divisive competition in a profession that requires cooperation and teamwork…that students learn best when teachers collaborate – not when teachers are forced to compete for money… (and finally, what we all know and can’t control) that children’s learning is also affected by circumstances related to their home environment, health care, nutrition, and other factors". Urbanski says that, "THERE IS NO CONVINCING EVIDENCE THAT MERIT PAY HAS RESULTED IN IMPROVED STUDENT LEARNING IN ANY SCHOOL OR SCHOOL DISTRICT!"


The common string which can be found in the available research is that wherever pay for performance has been tried, while in the short run, it may not have had a negative effect on educators, in the long run, i.e. within two or three years, the negatives start piling up; staff meetings become cutthroat, teachers become parochial refusing to share ideas and materials, and lines are drawn. Our WEAC leaders may have not have had bad intentions, but it is clear that their inability to "just say NO" has placed every teacher in Wisconsin in an extremely tenuous position. The COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENTS for which we have fought tooth and nail over the years are at risk, our progressive salary schedules are at risk, our local Unions, which we depend on for protection, to advance our rights, and to assure our economic welfare and that of our families are at risk.


For our well-being, that of our families, our colleagues, and our students, we must join together, arm-in-arm, and tell our WEAC leaders that enough is enough, to stay the course as directed by the RA, and tell THOMPSON and those who carry his water that WE, the members and policy makers of WEAC, have directed by Continuing Resolution C-36 that WEAC WILL NO LONGER "EXPLORE" PERFORMANCE BASED PAY; AND THAT OUR LEADERS, ELECTED AND STAFF, WILL VIGOROUSLY OPPOSE IT IN ANY FORM.

When the Sign Says, Wrong Way, Don’t Enter!

If we the Delegates to the Representative Assembly do not lead the charge to stop the establishment of performance based pay, it will surely bring about the demise of our Union; the Union upon which we depend for our employment security and our economic security. If we decide to run the risk with our future and go it alone knowing that it will be without our strong union, then we will sit idly and do nothing. But, we must know that doing nothing will leave us with nothing, no progressive salary schedule and no Union to assist and protect us.