Merit pay for teachers will drive performance

The quality of primary and secondary education is a subject that, with reason, preoccupies a lot of parents, especially now that another school year is beginning. These past weeks, Quebec has taken part in a brainstorming exercise regarding the evaluation of teachers and the possibility of rewarding the best among them with higher salaries in order to encourage excellence. It is refreshing to see that even without an official “summit,” several people have shared their insights and proposals.

Some have raised their voices to emphasize the complexity, even the impossibility of such an enterprise. The Quebec Federation of Teachers’ Unions, affiliated with the CSN, even went so far as to pretend that it was “an insult to the work that teachers do in Quebec schools.” How does recognizing and rewarding the extraordinary work accomplished by teachers constitute an insult to their profession? This kind of unnuanced reaction unfortunately contributes to fuelling the population’s disillusionment with its public institutions.

Teachers expressed some concerns about how evaluations would be carried out. This is a much more thought-out, constructive, relevant contribution to the search for a solution. And they’re right to be concerned: evaluation must not be limited to one single criterion like academic results, but must rather be made up of several objective criteria that reflect the multifaceted nature of their work. This is actually exactly what my MEI colleagues explain in an Economic Note published this week that reveals the “winning conditions” with regard to merit pay in an academic context.

Most of us, after all, are subject to more or less frequent evaluations on the job. At root, the idea of evaluating work and tying a portion of remuneration to such evaluation aims to introduce an incentive to surpass oneself, to do more than the strict minimum outlined in one’s contract. For the majority of Quebecers (67% according to a Leger Marketing poll published last week), it seems normal for those teachers obtaining the best results to be rewarded with an overall salary that is greater than that of their less effective colleagues.

Incentives are a powerful motivator. People, like institutions, react to them and adapt their behaviour accordingly. In this regard, the example of school boards is quite telling. Without growing political pressure (seeing its very existence threatened is, it would seem, a powerful incentive), it would have been unthinkable for the president of the Quebec Federation of School Boards to effect a 180 degree turn and promise to refocus their priorities on the child and to manage their public funds with greater restraint.

In summary, in its current form, teacher remuneration, based as it is on seniority and number of years of schooling, is simple and easy to administer. On the other hand, it does not create incentives to be excellent and can be discouraging for good teachers, of whom there are many in our schools. The complexity of a project should never be a reason to reject it out of hand. Even if developing and setting up such a program requires effort, we should contemplate a formula for Quebec. Our education system needs innovative solutions like merit pay for teachers. Let’s hope that Quebec politicians will work to put in place such a proposition that recognizes and rewards the hard work accomplished by teachers.

Jasmin Guénette is Vice President of the Montreal Economic Institute.

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