On Their Merits

The press needs to press the candidates more on “merit pay”

During this weekend’s Pander to Evangelical Voters Forum Pander to Rick Warren Forum Purpose-Driven Forum Saddleback Civil Forum—an event during which, any faithful recounting of it should note, our Bickerers-in-Chief good-naturedly if somewhat awkwardly hugged it out on stage—forum moderator Rick Warren asked John McCain and Barack Obama the same, single question about education policy:

America right now ranks nineteenth in high school graduation. We’re first in incarcerations. Not good. Eighty percent of Americans in a recent poll said they believe in merit pay for teachers. I’m not asking, do you think all teachers should get a raise? Do you think better teachers should be paid better, they should be made more than poor teachers?

Obama’s answer, basically: Yep. Give ’em merit pay. Or, swaddled in Obamic Nuance:

I think that we should—and I’ve said this publicly—that we should set up a system of performance pay for teachers negotiated with teachers, work with the teachers to figure out the assessment so they feel like they are being judged fairly, that it is not at the whim of the principal, that is it not based on a single high tests. But the basic notion that teaching is a profession, that teachers are underpaid so we need to pay them all more and create a higher base line but then we should also reward excellence—I think that is a concept that all of us should embrace.

Pretty straightforward. Teachers are underpaid; let’s pay them more for a job well done. And on their own terms. Yes on merit pay. Got it.

McCain’s answer is a bit harder to parse, possibly because he actually gave two answers to Warren’s question. There was his initial, straightforward-if-curt response to the merit pay query (“A yes. Yes. And find bad teachers another line of work”). But when Warren (kinda) pressed the candidate on the issue—one of the few faux-follow-ups the pastor attempted during the two-hour-long event—McCain’s second answer got a bit lost in conflation:

Warren: Let’s talk about education. America ranks nineteenth in high school graduations, but we’re first in incarceration. Everybody says they want more accountability in schools. About 80 percent of America says they support merit pay for the best teachers. Now, I don’t want to hear your stump speech on education—

McCain: A yes. Yes. And find bad teachers another line of work.

Warren: You’re answering so quickly.

McCain: Can I—

Warren: You want to play a game of poker?

McCain: Can I just say: choice and competition—choice and competition, home schooling, charter school vouchers, all the choice competition. I want—look, I want every American family to have the same choice that Cindy and I made and Senator Obama and Mrs. Obama made as well—and that was we wanted to send our children to the school of our choice. And charter schools work, my friends, home schooling works, vouchers in our nation’s capital works. We’ve got thousands of people in Washington, D.C. that are applying for a voucher system. New York City is reforming. I go back to New Orleans. They were—as we know, the tragedy devastated them. They now have over thirty charter schools in the city of New Orleans, and guess what? It’s all coming up. It’s all coming up.

It’s a simple principle, but it’s going to take dedicated men and women, particularly in the teaching profession, to make it happen. And by the way, here in—I won’t go any further, but the point is it’s all based and it’s being proven that choice in competition for every American family and it is the civil rights issue of the 21st century because every citizen’s child now has an opportunity to go to school. But what kind of opportunity is it if you send them to a failing school? That’s why we’ve got to give everybody the same opportunity and choice.

McCain has a point in conflating merit pay for teachers with school choice and other species of “competition” in education: there’s certainly a connection between incentivizing teacher excellence and school competition in general. But “merit pay”—or “pay for performance,” as it’s sometimes known—is more complicated than the Civil Forum’s participants let on. And, considering that merit pay is a favorite ed-related topic for reporters to bring up with the candidates (concise? check! but loaded? check! but can still be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”? check!), journalists would do well to provide their audiences with a bit of context when it comes to the subject—to do just a bit of courtesy parsing when it comes to (yep, we’re gonna go there)…the merits of merit pay.

As its name suggests, “merit pay” implies bonuses paid out to excellent teachers—excellence, in this case, as generally determined by student achievement (as, in turn, generally determined by testing). On the surface, merit pay is an obvious solution to the national problem of woefully under-compensated educators—not to mention a species of capitalistic motivation that is, you know, oh-so-American.

And yet proposals for merit pay—though favored, as Warren noted, by some 80 percent of the country—remain controversial. Teachers unions, in particular, generally dispute merit pay as both a concept and a policy prescription, arguing (often correctly) that its implementation would threaten the contracts they negotiate (often painstakingly) with school districts. (The collectively bargained contractual provisions generally stipulate tenure-based raises, with teachers’ salaries increasing at a uniform rate, regardless of performance.) Per the union perspective, and the premium-on-seniority mentality that tends to go with it, the slippery-slope aspect of merit pay could eventually lead, as McCain suggested, to the firing of poorly performing teachers. However much sense those firings might make from a school-management standpoint, they’d be unpopular among educators who’ve become rather fond of their job security.

Considering the traditional conventional wisdom—that as go the teachers unions, so goes the Democratic Party—Obama’s advocacy of merit pay marks a significant departure from traditional party orthodoxy. A departure worthy, as such, of follow-up from reporters.

In the meantime, though, the drawbacks of merit pay—if reporters give the idea itself some follow-up—stretch beyond the unions. The fact that the bonuses would generally be determined by student test scores could provide fodder for that classic bĂȘte noire, “teaching to the test”—and perhaps exacerbate it even further. (Nothing abets a bĂȘte quite like economic self-interest.) Some worry that fostering competition among teachers will lower morale, rather than bolster it. There are data that suggest merit pay programs don’t, in the long run, increase student achievement. And then there’s that standard concern, the question that should be, perhaps, permanently appended to every question asked of the candidates about our under-funded education system, whether related to merit pay or anything else: Um, how would we pay for it?

None of which is to say, necessarily, that merit pay is a bad idea. It is to say, however, that it’s a complicated one—or, at least, one more complicated than the candidates and the press have thus far given it credit for. If we’re going to focus on merit pay as a touchstone of the education debate, then audiences deserve a fuller picture of what it is. (There’s a lot of good coverage of the issue out there, but all too often, the quality coverage doesn’t make it into campaign reporting.) And merit pay is, of course, only one example of the need for nuance and term-parsing. There is, as Trudy Lieberman has been pointing out elsewhere on this Web site, “universal” health care. There is, as McCain mentioned in another Saddleback segment, the dicey idea of “victory” in Iraq. Et cetera.

Rick Warren, in the Saddleback case, isn’t a journalist, so the simplicity of his single education-related question—“merit pay: yea or nay?”—is forgivable. But political reporters are often similarly reductive in their questioning—particularly in one-on-one interviews, which often glorify the “gotcha” of the yes-or-no question. Which is unfortunate, since, after all, providing context for their audiences is one way reporters merit their own pay.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.