The “Competitive/Comparative” Model in Teaching

The local university just announced a merit pay bonus incentive for faculty members, and the majority of the Music Department greeted the plan with great skepticism, not because they opposed recognition of superior accomplishment… but because the proposed structure was essentially flawed.  In fact, for many university departments, and for most schools, as well as many businesses and corporations, such “merit” awards will always be fatally flawed.

Why?  Because all too many organizations regard their employees and even their executives as homogenous and interchangeable parts, even when duties, skills, responsibilities, work hours, and achievements vary widely, and those variances are even greater in the academic community and yet paradoxically, in terms of administration and pay, they’re even less recognized than in the  corporate world.

Take a music department, for example, with instrumentalists, pianists, vocalists, composers, music educators, and musicologists.  How, with any sense of fairness, do you compare expertise across disciplines?  Or across time?  Is the female opera director who built a voice program from nothing over 15 years, who has sung on low-level national stages intermittently, who is a noted reviewer in a top journal in her field, and who serves as a national officer in a professional organization more to be rewarded than the renowned pianist who won several prestigious international competitions and performs nationally, but who limits his teaching to the bare minimum?  Or what about the woodwind player who was voted educator of the year for both the university and the state, who is known regionally but not nationally  as a devoted and excellent teacher? Or the percussionist who revitalized the percussion program and performs on the side with a group twice nominated for Grammies? Or the soprano who sings in an elite choral group also nominated for a Grammy?

Then add the fact that all of them are underpaid by any comparative standard with other universities [which also indicates just how hard music faculty jobs are to find and hold]…and with other departments, even though the music faculty work longer hours as well as evenings and weekends, and the fact that the annual “merit pay” award would be a one-time annual payment of $1,000-$2,000 to only one faculty member.  In essence, the administration is attempting to address systemic underpayment and continued inequalities with a very small band-aid, not that the administrators have much choice, given that the legislature won’t fund higher education adequately and tuition increases are limited.

In primary and secondary schools, merit pay has become a huge issue, along with evaluating teachers.  Everyone, even teachers, agrees on the fact that good teachers should be rewarded and bad ones removed.  But determining who is good or average, and who gets paid what is far, far, harder than it looks, which is why most teachers have historically opposed the concept of merit pay, because in all too many cases where it has been actually implemented it’s gone to administration or parent “favorites,” who are not always the best teachers.  A competent teacher in an upper-middle-class school where parents are involved and concerned should be able to boast of solid student achievement on tests, evaluations, etc.  A brilliant, dedicated, and effective teacher in some inner city schools may well be accomplishing miracles to keep or lift a bare majority of students to grade level, while a competent teacher may only have a few students on grade level.  Yet relying on student test scores would suggest that the first teacher of these three deserved “merit pay.”  And in “real life,” the complications are even greater.  How do you compare a special education teacher with standard classroom teachers, even in the same school, let alone across schools with different demographics?

In addition, when teachers feel overworked and underpaid, and many, but not all, are, offering merit pay tends to turn people into competing for the money — or rejecting the entire idea.  I’ve seen both happen, and neither outcome is good.   Yet the underlying principle of ratings and “merit pay” is that such comparisons are possible and valid.  So far, I’ve yet to see any such workable and valid plan… and neither have most teachers. And when merit pay is added in with all the other problems with the educational system that I’ve discussed in other posts, all merit pay usually does is make the situation worse.  It’s an overly simplistic solution to a complex series of problems that few really want to address.  But then, what else is new?



7 thoughts on “The “Competitive/Comparative” Model in Teaching”

  1. Tim says:

    In the corporate world the equivalent process is termed ‘performance related pay’ where there is a yearly bonus paid based on achievement of agreed objectives.

    This bonus is non-consolidated which means it is not included in any final assessment for pension. It is also discretionary which means that the company remuneration committee may decide not to pay such an award, though this is very rare.

    So many companies increase this part of the remuneration package whilst keeping salary level increases at low or moderate levels. It makes sense.

    However, the behaviours this drives are not particularly good. I had a reasonably large team and was expected to mark the lowest 10% as poor performers. The logic was that you must get rid of the lowest 10% each year, recruit new blood and so “raise the bar”. Theoretically this also makes sense, but supposing you were tasked with recruiting an elite team – in my case, IT senior designers.

    Who would dare join such a team unless they were young and very mobile. People with with children at private school or tied for other reasons to the area (eg ageing parents) would be more cautious. Best to stay in a larger pool of poor performers. That way your job is secure.

    So these people do not realise their full potential and the company suffers. There is a press termed “levelling” where senior managers get together with HR to ensure that everyone is normalised across the organisation. In effect it is an activity based on out-manoeuvring your colleagues so that they had to take the hits and meet the (not stated) quotas.

    It had nothing to do with individual merit. It had everything to do with how well you argued for your team. I was good at this but I also was not happy at seeing good guys in other teams marked down – for being in the wrong place.

    You will never be able to apply equivalent objective rules and it will always be down to subjective and corporate agendas. Sadly.

  2. Brian Kelman says:

    Perhaps I’m giving more credit than it is due when I suggest this idea is well intentioned. But it is clear that the consequences of it will pave a road to you know where.

  3. Christopher Browne says:

    I think you have nicely characterized, with some comprehensible examples, the trouble with “merit pay” initiatives.

    The same kinds of issues come up everywhere, albeit often with surrounding stories that are less approachable.

    Measuring merit is difficult, particularly when the torch of individual brilliance is being reflected against varying sets of circumstances.

  4. Joe says:

    Because it’s impossible to assign money based on merit, in practice it’s just a scheme to get people in line. People who care about the incentives try to ingratiate themselves to management, and avoid all conflict with them. People who care about the work see through the scheme, become discouraged, and stop caring enough to make trouble for management.

    The most successful schooling system is Finish. Teachers don’t have merit pay. They all have good pay, exacting entrance requirements, social recognition, and complete independence.

  5. John says:

    My sympathies to your wife and to her colleagues- they are obviously highly skilled, dedicated, high performing individuals. And, if the “merit incentive/ bonus” is being awarded with no prior discussion with the individuals or with the department, it will be difficult to do in any way that at all appears to be fair.

    In both my industrial experience and experience in academic administration, we attempted to provide some semblance of a merit pay system. Key to that was an advance discussion with each indivudual about objectives for the coming award period, usually a year. At the end of that period, individuals were evaluated and rewarded on the basis of their performance against those objectives. As both an employee and a manager, I felt as if I was treated fairly, and, with the help of my own superiors and colleagues in management, we attempted to treat our subordinate fairly. Regular Corporate wide surveys tested those attempts and, at least at that time (now long past), showed that people felt that they were being treated fairly. That coporation has since fallen far from those standards.

    In your wife’s case, the fact that there are minimal resources for such merit awards, and that apparently there was no advance discussion of this, I see no real way to be fair about it at this time, but there are potential ways to be so moving forward. Clearly the University has objectives and needs- survival, effective teaching, and impact on both the local and the various professional and societal communities for instance. I could see a mesurement system being developed around these- who brought in some good graduate students, or saw their own undergrads move on to good positions or good advance degree positions? Musicians are used to competitions- how did their students perform in such? How were their personal performances received, and what impact have they had on either or both the musical community or the local/ state/ natinoal societies?

    Bottom line- it has to be done in advance, both with discussions wiht the individuals, and perhaps in departmental discussion. But it needs trust between administration and faculty, something often missing, and it needs resources so that it is at least a game worth the candle.

  6. Jeremy says:

    I agree with a lot of your post, but not this part:

    “…not that the administrators have much choice, given that the legislature won’t fund higher education adequately and tuition increases are limited.”

    Why should the legislature be involved in education (bringing your “beloved” politics into the situation), especially when the U.S. state and federal governments are so strained?

    1. Because both the federal and state governments have been, particularly since the institution of Land grant universities more than a century ago. State colleges still provide the majority of undergraduate and graduate degrees in the USA, and they were designed to do so through state support to keep tuition low in order for those who were not of the elite to be able to obtain higher education. Less than a generation ago, most state colleges and universities obtained the majority of their funding from the states. Now that percentage is less than fifteen percent in some states, and generally less than 25%. Because they’re aren’t other sources, the result has been higher tuition for all students… and higher student loan burdens, effectively placing more economic burdens on those students generally less able to pay them off. Like it or not, the result looks to be a return of sorts to a time when the best educations invariably went to the wealthy. Is this what you want?

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