Merit Pay and the Special Education Teacher

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Merit pay has been a popularized concept by numerous organizations and governing agencies when considering the ways in which improved teacher performance can be achieved. Although the theoretical concept appears sound, performance should render better pay, teaching is a complex art and there are too many variables that render merit-based pay as unsuitable for the teaching profession. This paper focuses specifically on the impacts that merit-based pay has on those who teach special education.

Action Inquiry

There is not adequate pay for the Special Education Teacher due to a lack of test results meeting the desired outcomes required under merit-based pay programs. Although the idea of merit-based pay for traditional classroom teachers appears to be sound, high performance should render higher income, the challenge with managing special education classrooms is that the developmental delays render “achievement” an extreme variable that cannot truly be measured and adequately rewarded. Other factors that become problematic are when teachers are pressured to doctor test results in order to firmly secure school results, which impact overall school funding, and ultimately the merit pay of the teacher(s). Additional factors include the exclusion of certain types of teachers (ie. Music and Special Education) since measurability is hard to quantify (Levin, 2010). Exclusion is unfair to these teachers and can cause issues among staff. How does merit-based pay harm teachers and students, especially those in the special education classroom? The purpose of this study is to quantify the degree of harm that could befall students and special education teachers who are subjected to merit-based pay educational environments.

When the efforts to “achieve” become a focus for adult gain, the students lose because the adults shift focus from the intricacy of individual student achievement to self-serving motivations that ensure highest pay or attention, creating a hostile work environment that does not render the students recipients of the highest quality teaching nor the most thorough education possible. Teaching to the test is a short-sighted teaching methodology at its best. Using merit pay to incentivize the teachers to teach to the test radically shifts the students’ exposure to more complex ideas, creativity, and critical thinking development. Motivating the teachers to isolate learning in this way, on top of the unfairness of the merit pay system, will ultimately harm the children rather than enhance their learning to true higher outcomes. What exactly is merit pay and what purpose does it serve?

The term “merit” to most educators is a performance-based metric that implies that some- thing “special” was accomplished; something “over and above the call of duty” was done, or that something “of high value or regard” was the result of one’s use of time. This sense of merit also could mean that a great volume and mixture of both common and extraordinary tasks were performed in tandem and/or done singularly well. Thus, merit pay plans appear to exist within a complex value-laden context that also helps to establish its commonsense meaning. This value-based meaning of merit, in turn, shapes the re- wards that might accrue from the quality and quantity of work that gets performed. Related factors such as administrative assessments of faculty tasks, length of service, gender-gap catch- up decisions, and college board mandates also may come together, at times, to complicate, even more, what is meritorious (Henshaw, 2004, p.58).

Literature Review

The previous quote was addressing the purpose of merit-based pay implementation into the university setting, which has been a contention of discussion since the early 1990s (Henshaw, 2004). How the concept affects the public K-12 classroom, and more importantly the Special Education Classroom remains much more insecure. Current arguments that support the demonizing of merit-based pay extend far beyond the special education classroom. There are numerous academic resources that justify the admonishing of merit-based pay in the public school classroom. Some of the examples include: no comparable system in any other labor force that justifies implementation into such a radically variable environment, client outcomes do not play a factor in the pay in any other professional field, teachers are primarily not in favor of the concept, educational focus isolates and limits overall educational learning and knowledge development in students, no truly meaningful measurement system has been defined, there is no foundation for addressing degrees of error, merit pay systems currently in place have vastly different agendas and outcomes that have currently impacted students and teachers quite significantly, and finally current merit pay systems that have been implemented in the educational realm have a history of doomed outcomes (Levin, 2010).

The ISLLC Educational Leadership Policy Standards (2008) address the impact that effective school leadership plays a role second only to classroom instruction. The emphasis made in this report has much more to do with setting standards and hiring high-quality instructors, but does not offer any mention of merit-based pay or its potential implication in education, let alone in the Special Education classroom. How does merit pay influence leadership? How does leadership address the incompatibility of merit-based pay structures with the Special Education classroom? What other funding scenarios could become problematic as a result of merit-based pay structures that depend solely upon teacher performance?

McCain proposed a solution to offer “school choice” options to families who were residents in underperforming schools and encourages the use of merit-based pay for teachers (Caruso, 2014). He also aspires to bring teachers into the schools from other fields that have no educational training or background. He does acknowledge that Special Education students should be tested differently, which of course would also impact the merit-based pay potential of Special Education Teachers. Additionally, for Special Education Teachers who are in low-performing districts, the implementation of the voucher system or “school choice” option also removes foundational funding that is essential to sustaining their programs. This would also lead to higher classroom populations, fewer staff, and fewer resources to meet the needs of this very diverse and highly resource-dependent group. Because of this, teachers' unions are likely to emerge. Theories such as McCain’s, render the entire educational field a new form of “Wild West” and truly sets to unprofessionalize the entire educational profession. What are the impacts that this would make on the Special Education classroom? Are there any real supporters of merit-based pay? Have there already been abuses in utilizing the merit pay system? What were the consequences of such abuses?

There are recorded incidents, many of which are district-wide, of schools “cheating” on the standardized tests that, under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), help to fund the school’s actual functionality. Schools that underperform are penalized and can lose federal funding if they underperform (Clabaugh, 2009). As such, there are recorded cases of highly urban and highly underperforming school districts gaming the system to falsify test scores in order to appear as if they are turning their schools around and becoming model schools. Merit pay is often utilized to incentivize teacher compliance, as we found in the Atlantic Public Schools (Kobakhidze, 2010). There are rampant abuses such as this nationwide. Many highly urban and impoverished districts will go to extreme lengths to sustain their failing schools. They do so for the children because without that funding, the schools will close. As we have seen in numerous urban areas such as Chicago, many of the underperforming schools have been closed and replaced with Charter Schools. Charter Schools have also had a variable performance record, a large portion of which have not been positive since the control structures of Charter Schools are much looser than the legally mandated structures of public schools. It would almost appear that the laws that limit the public schools, are really the reason for the underperformance and the inclusion of merit-based pay is a guaranteed method to close them down in order to facilitate a free-market education field. The question to ask is: how will this truly affect student outcomes? Is it in the best interests of students or society at large? Is hiring staff that has not come from educational backgrounds, with less education in education, and minimal experience in education really the best strategy to improve workforce development? What of the human development component and what of the developmental delays found in students within the Special Education Classroom? How do they fit into this free-market education field strategy? Do they find themselves unable to enroll in these schools because the schools don’t have the resources or the trained staff to handle the various challenges these students face? What if these students only have the option of public schools and those same public schools are now underfunded due to Charter School takeover? What are the long-term effects of such a strategy that clearly has close ties with merit-based pay? Why is merit-based pay being considered?

There has been an ongoing discussion related to underperforming schools and students and how to change this outcome (Lavy, 2007). The high school drop-out rates are highest in urban communities where poverty is more prevalent (Tierney, 2007). Additional factors include language acquisition (immigrants) and then, of course, the additional factor that cannot be changed, the special education student. The broadening of the label attached to special education students has gone to include students with disorders such as ADHD and Autism. Both of these “disorders” have a broad spectrum of challenges that render some teachers to be harder on the students because they believe the behaviors are choices that are made. Most often the more restrictive and demanding the teacher is on these students, the lower their performance. Merit-based pay would only exacerbate this issue (Glewwe, Ilias, Kremer, 2010). There is also the implication of teachers or principals who motivate students of such challenges to not appear on testing day so as not to skew the test results. This blatant acknowledgment of their exclusion sends a devastating message to these students and does nothing to improve the graduation rates. If anything, this only will exacerbate the drop-out rates. Students are very conscious of the behavior of the adults around them. The students in the special education classroom are no exception. The value of the human component is completely ignored in the merit pay based system. It is a crude insult to students who struggle daily in living, let alone in learning. All of these behaviors have been identified in Lavy’s (2007) research relating to merit-based pay structures in Israel. Overall, he did feel that it could improve performance, however, the ultimate challenges belying the implementation were problematic.

Significance of the Study

As adequately explored in the Literature Review section, there is ample concern for this type of pay structure to be more deeply researched, understood, and adequately documented in its implications, actual effects, and overall outcome. This is especially true for the Special Education Classroom, which holds a very different set of challenges than the traditional mainstream classroom. If challenges remain for the mainstream classroom, it would assert that the challenges in the Special Education Classroom would be exacerbated and their impact on the students as well as the Special Education Teacher are in dire need of deeper investigation and analysis. The Literature Review has demonstrated clear concerns that need further investigation and actionable research to be more deeply clarified, understood, and potential solutions discovered.


The research methodology utilized for this study will be multi-faceted. Blind surveys will be conducted with teachers in various school districts and pay structures, including those currently with professional pay for teachers. Ideally, research surveys will find themselves in the hands of teachers and administrators currently undergoing merit-based pay structures. Questions will include personal responses, in free-form text structure as well as multiple-choice responses. These surveys will be contrasted to surveys submitted to teachers and administrators not currently experiencing merit-based pay structures so that the reflection based upon actual experience and assumed fears can be compared

Data Collection Methodology

The surveys will be distributed through a virtual platform so to prevent correlation with individual teachers and school districts and to protect privacy and accuracy of responses. A further literature review will be performed to reinforce data collected from the surveys. Experimental research design is not applicable since the factors involved are not something that can be controlled without express permission by school districts, which is highly unlikely for a study such as this. As such, it is more prudent and realistic to rely upon Correlational Research Design which renders the blind survey results more applicable to already enacted practices and perceived fears while being contrasted against current peer-reviewed and published research studies. The most constructive outlet to have exposure to such a vast array of teacher and administrator experiences is to offer the survey within the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group which has over 38,000 members as of February 26, 2014. There are no guarantees of participation or how many will choose to participate, but the mere exposure to so many people working in the field of education in one location renders the potential for adequate survey results much higher. The questions on the survey will be developed from the questions asked in this proposal.

Data Analysis

Data analysis will be performed on the collected survey results and compared through a chart in Survey Monkey. This analysis will help to highlight overall responses, their inclination toward or against merit pay and additional implications within the Special Education Classroom. These results will then be compared and contrasted with the current literature review materials discussed and reflection upon those reviews and results will be constructed to adequately reflect the overall understanding of information gathered and its real-world implications on the ground in our public school classrooms.


Caruso, Lisa. (2014). “McCain on Education.” Unpublished.

Clabaugh, Gary K (Fall 2009). “Teacher Merit Pay: Is it a good idea?” The Cutting Edge, Educational Horizons.

Educational Leadership Policy Standards: ISLLC 2008 As Adopted by the National Policy Board for Educational Administration. Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington, DC.

Glewwe, P., Ilias, N., Kremer, M. (July 2010). “Teacher Incentives.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, (2/3). pp. 205-227. American Economic Association. Web Search 2/24/2014.

Henshaw, Larry G. (Spring 2004). “Value-Related Issues in a Departmental Merit Pay Plan.” The Professional Educator (XXVI/2). Pp. 57-68.

Kobakhidze, M. (2010). Teacher Incentives and the Future of Merit-Based Pay in Georgia. European Education, 42(3), 68-89.

Lavy, Victor. (Spring, 2007). “Using Performance-Based Pay to Improve the Quality of Teachers.” The Future of Children (17/1) pp. 87-109).

Levin, Ben (October 2010). “Eight Reasons Merit Pay for Teachers is a Bad Idea.” ETFO.

Tierney, William G. (September 2007). “Merit and Affirmative Action in Education: Promulgating a democratic public culture.” Urban Education (42/5). Pp. 385-402. University of Southern California, Los Angeles.