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The Debate over Differentiated Pay: The Devil Is in the Details

by Barbara Miner

If you want to stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy, propose merit pay for teachers. Based on decades of experience with programs that rewarded a few teachers based on standardized test scores, legions of teachers will search for the biggest, deadliest cans of Raid they can find.

But if you want to start an interesting discussion, propose an alternative pay structure that goes beyond the traditional reliance on seniority and graduate-level credits and also promotes teacher leadership. Educators who agree on any number of issues, from the dangers of privatization to the importance of smaller class sizes, may differ strongly on how to respond to your proposal.

Welcome to pay for performance. Or alternative compensation. Or differentiated pay. Whatever you call it, it is emerging as a leading debate in education reform. The only surefire agreement among progressive teachers and union activists: Don’t use the term “merit pay” unless you want to end the discussion before it begins. Even noneducators President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan know better. Despite media headlines that consistently refer to their “merit pay” proposals, neither has used that term in their speeches or initiatives.

“Everybody knows we are against merit pay, that’s not new,” notes Kay Brilliant, director of education policy and practice for the National Education Association (NEA). “The question for everybody who is writing and thinking about it is: ‘What is it we are actually talking about here? What do we want?’”

Both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have made it clear they do not outright oppose modifications in the traditional salary system, but insist it be done at the local level with the input and support of teachers and, in states with collective bargaining, as part of the union contract. They have also made clear that the devil is in the details.

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