Houston Imposes "Merit Pay" on Teachers

January 29, 2006

In January, the Houston Board of Education imposed a "merit pay" scale on the city's 12,300 public school teachers. Houston is the country's 7th largest school district with over 200,000 public school students.

The merit pay scheme will award higher pay to teachers at schools whose students achieve certain scores on standardized tests. Pre-K teachers, Special Ed instructors and teachers in subjects not included on standardized tests (e.g. music, art, history, etc.) will not be eligible for these raises. One result will be that schools with higher standardized test scores will inevitably recruit more teachers thereby widening the gap between schools.

The Houston Federation of Teachers opposed this merit pay scheme and called for across the board raises for all teachers. However, since Texas law bans public employee collective bargaining, the Board of Education has implemented the plan over the teachers' objections.

Houston's shift to "merit pay" is part of a national trend. Also in January, all new teachers in the Denver school system will receive only "merit" raises (current teachers are free to choose the new plan or a traditional pay scale). New York City has begun a partial merit pay system and politicians in other states and cities are pushing such proposals.

The program and ideology of "merit pay" is an attack on teachers and the public school system.

For decades, teachers were drastically underpaid and subject to arbitrary treatment and discrimination in wages, job security, working conditions, etc. Women and minority teachers were paid less. Politicians and administrators rewarded their friends and punished their enemies, looking on the teaching profession as part of the "political machine." Teachers were routinely denied the freedom of conscience and the right to teach the truth.

Through repeated struggles, teachers improved their conditions. Union contracts and various laws have created objective standards which guarantee a measure of job security and equal wages commensurate with teachers' level of education and years on the job. "Merit pay" seeks to replace these objective standards with subjective criteria, including the "evaluation" of the principal and student performance on standardized tests.

Teachers will be put tightly under the thumb of administrators and be expected to meet every demand of the principal or be denied their "merit" raise. In the end, more and more teachers will be denied "merit pay" increases and teachers' wages will not keep pace with inflation or other workers.

The justifications used to push merit pay claim that "teachers aren't getting the job done," "seniority makes teachers lazy," "union rules don't work," etc. This ideology is also a vicious attack on teachers and basic democratic rights. In place of equal work for equal pay, objective standards and seniority rights guarantying teachers' livelihood, merit pay seeks to put teachers completely at the mercy of the arbitrary demands of the political establishment. Merit pay is not only a scheme for increasing the exploitation of teachers but an attack on the integrity of the public schools and on any modern definition of rights.