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Merit-based pay sparks controversy

Kate Dearman
Lindsey Pellittieri talks merit-based pay for Mississippi teachers.  Courtesy Photo
Lindsey Pellittieri talks merit-based pay for Mississippi teachers.
Courtesy Photo

A new year always brings a slew of changes as people begin to look forward to and anticipate the year ahead. For Mississippians, the 2014 session for the state legislature opened on Jan. 7, and many hot topic issues are emerging, including the controversial topic of merit-based teacher pay for public school educators which is supported by Gov. Phil Bryant.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, merit-based pay is a raise in pay based on a set of criteria set by the employer. For schools, this means that the better students perform in the classroom, the more teachers are paid, and the more likely it is that they can keep their jobs.
On the surface, raising merit-based pay sounds like a wonderful plan. Mississippi teachers are consistently paid much lower salaries than teachers in the rest of the country. According to The Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi teachers’ salaries are 26 percent below the national average for 2012-2013 and are the second lowest in the country. Not only is this a way to increase their pay, but by holding teachers accountable for their students’ performance, teachers who may have slacked off in the past will now have a personal interest in the success of their students. It can also attract more teachers to a field which has been seeing a decline in numbers as well as encouraging improvement in state test scores.
Lindsey Pellittieri, a junior elementary and special education double major, is familiar with merit-based pay because of her classes and thinks it is a good idea. “I think it’s unfair that teachers go into a profession where we don’t get to advance based on our individual performance,” Pellittieri said.

“If I’m only teaching for a year, but I’m more effective than a teacher who’s been in the system for 25 years, that shouldn’t matter,” she said. “If I have an effect on my students, and they’re advancing and progressing in their academics, then I should be recognized for that.”
Yet there are also dangers to merit-based pay. For students in some areas, rapid improvement is simply not realistic, especially in impoverished areas, no matter how hard a teacher may be trying. Merit-based salaries also put an unhealthy pressure on teachers to make sure that their students are constantly doing well.

In recent years, critics have pointed out that teachers who are paid based on student performance are more likely to “teach to the test.” This means only reviewing material that will be on state tests and neglecting to provide a more comprehensive education. What is more frightening are reports of teachers cheating for their students, giving them the answers to standardized tests and, as in one case in Atlanta, changing answer sheets that had already been turned in as complete, according to

Tyler Scoggins, a history licensure major, sees both the benefits and complications of merit-based pay. While he would like to see merit-based pay in the field he will eventually teacher for, and thinks it will encourage students in the classroom, he also believes that it could
spark problems.

“It might cause unfair and negative competition between teachers and might cause some teachers discouragement if they do not receive merit pay,”Scoggins said.

Legislators will have a difficult job ahead of them in coming months as they consider how to help the teachers in their state. With pressure from parents, government officials, lobbyists and teachers, the idea of paying Mississippi’s teachers based on performance is certainly an important issue to watch in 2014. But, as Pellittieri said, “Good teachers are in it for the outcome, not the income.”

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Merit-based pay sparks controversy