Merit pay is the concept of paying someone for the value they actually produce, not just a salary for showing up every day. An employee is measured against the contribution they are expected to make, usually a specific target like a sales goal or production goal, and paid based on how close they came to that target. Merit pay for teachers has always been stymied by the difficult task of selecting the specific measurable target(s) to use to determine their pay. The latest trend has been to use student test scores as the objective measure of teacher merit. I won’t dwell on the fact that, unlike the GM line manager who chose the defective ignition switch, teachers can’t choose the quality of students they are given to mold into lifelong earners so using student scores is not as objective or relevant as most people would like to believe. For now I am going to go with the idea that such a surrogate is an acceptable measure for teachers.  Assuming hard numbers were available, due to a complete breakdown of the U.S. Constitution, of students earnings, which is what everyone seems to be focused on these days, I wonder what college professors would think of merit pay for their jobs based on graduate salaries.

I spent time with my daughter recently going over her freshman college course options and was dismayed, to say the least, about some of the courses offered. Advanced Basket Weaving has always been a staple of pointless college courses that served no other purpose than to get students (and now our government) to fork over dollars to fulfill the time-in-seat requirements to obtain a sheepskin from some institution of higher learning which was then meant to reassure future employers that this person can learn and would be an acceptable risk as an employee. Did most employers look at the specific courses you took to obtain a 3.92 GPA? No. The point was more, were you able to take in information, synthesize it and in some way demonstrate mastery of it to an expert. So, basket weaving or applied physics, it didn’t make all that much difference.

But today’s focus on career readiness should call this practice into question.

Senators Marco Rubio and Rob Wyden have, for a couple years, proposed the Student Right To Know Before You Go Act which would require colleges to collect more information about their graduates’ pay, among other data points. The latest version of the bill (died in 2012) called for a federal unit record system which I have included in many of my talks on data gathering. This is the holy grail for researchers, a cradle to workforce/grave tracking of multiple data points on every student and ultimately every person in the country. The federal government has wanted this for a very long time, but public opinion has been very opposed to the feds having a personal dossier on every American. Strange that Wyden, an opponent of the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, would support an expanded data collection system that “continues the use of a unique individual identifier system.” To be fair the rest of that text in the bill says, “that does not permit an individual to be identified by users of the data system,” but perhaps Wyden and Rubio are not aware that anything aggregated or hidden, if still tied to a unique identifier, can always be disaggregated or re-identified in the digital world. It’s pretty much saying we’d like to eat our cake and still have it too.

The bill seeks to collect ” data on average individual annual earnings, disaggregated by educational program, degree received, educational institution, employment sector, and State.” The sponsors say the bill is necessary, in an age of record high student loan debt and associated unemployment, in order that students and families can make better decisions about which schools and majors to choose to get the biggest return on their debt, I mean investment. If that is the point, then the bill doesn’t go far enough and is only of limited use.

Why not drill all the way down to the courses the student took to determine if individual courses added to their career readiness? Why not also use that data to determine merit pay for the professors who teach those courses? After all, if your class in 19th century women’s dress, does not add materially to a student’s future wages, shouldn’t you be paid less? If our goal is to make people active contributors to the economy, shouldn’t we be ferreting out the low producing courses like Social Appearance in Time and Space, The Female Experience: Body, Identity, Culture, and Queer Theories/Identities, which do not provide broadly useful skills in the current global economy?

Currently merit pay in higher ed uses proxies such as completion of graduate courses or advanced degrees to distinguish between staff. These only look at merit of the individual in comparison to other individuals in the same teaching area. Marilyn Amey and Kim VanDerLinden of University of Michigan wrote on the topic of merit pay in higher ed and highlighted the limitations of the current thought on the definition of merit. “Performance indicators usually include teaching, research, and service, weighted in accordance with an institution’s mission.” Their paper doesn’t mention the value of the product produced by the higher education process, the student. That would be like Ford paying an engineer based on whether he had an advanced degree in electrical engineering and in comparison to what he might earn at Toyota or Volks Wagon for a similar position. The business world, instead looks at his contribution to the quality of the product they produce which would enable the company to charge more for the product. Why is this concern for the final product and bottom line not present in higher ed pay structure?

Let’s use the information gathered by the Student Right To Know Act to not only choose courses, but tie professor merit pay to student earnings. It really is no more random than the system we are instituting for k-12 teachers, where a music teacher can be let go due to his students’ Language Arts scores being so low.  If the goal is to help control costs, then it would be good to know that taking Gender and Women’s Studies, even if you get an A and come out really knowing how to identify and alleviate the problems with gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality in higher education, will prepare you for no paying job other than teaching that topic to other students at another university. And if you can’t get paid very much to do that then, using the merit pay system, shouldn’t the teacher be paid less because they did not materially increase your market value? If they’re being paid less, shouldn’t the university, out of a sense of fairness, charge you less for that class? If college is now all about making you career ready to be an economic contributor, and we all want accountability, doesn’t this system make sense?

Unfortunately the data is not yet available to help my daughter pick her classes or control her costs by only selecting classes that will increase her market value. We will have to pay the same per credit hour for “Adultery Novels In and Out Of Russia” as we would for “General Genetics.”  I guess we are going to have to rely on common sense for now.


(If you’re really interested, has a list of ridiculous college courses.)




Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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