NEA on Merit Pay, Without the Sugar Coating

In the last 24 hours, we have heard, and will continue to hear, the National Education Association professing its opposition to merit pay “based on student test scores.” The union is also repeating that its main concern is for any performance pay to be collectively bargained, rather than imposed.

If you rely on the union’s public statements, you can be forgiven if you believe that there is some wiggle room when it comes to basing teacher salaries on something other than years of service and college credits. But NEA’s resolutions and policy documents, approved by all the representative bodies of the union each year, are unequivocal on the issue.

Resolution F-8 lists the basic contract standards that the union believes all collective bargaining agreements should contain. The list includes salary schedules “that exclude any form of merit pay except in institutions of higher education where it has been bargained.” It has no provision for merit pay in K-12 schools.

Resolution F-9 (Salaries and Other Compensation) has three paragraphs related to pay beyond the traditional salary schedule. One includes support for additional salary for national certification. The other two read:

“The Association opposes providing additional compensation to attract and/or retain education employees in hard-to-recruit positions.”


“The Association further believes that performance pay schedules, such as merit pay or any other system of compensation based on an evaluation of an education employee’s performance, are inappropriate.”

Resolution F-10 provides additional details.

“The National Education Association is opposed to the use of merit pay or performance pay compensation systems.”

The resolution then lists the minimum criteria for any system created “that provides additional compensation to education employees beyond that provided by the single salary schedule.” This section calls for the system to be bargained collectively, to use objective measurement, to be fully funded, and to be available to all. It also requires:

“Any additional compensation beyond a single salary schedule must not be based on education employee evaluation, student performance, or attendance.”

What does this add up to? NEA opposes merit pay, performance pay, or any other method of pay that replaces the traditional salary schedule, collectively bargained or not (except for higher ed). The union may support pay that supplements the traditional salary schedule provided it is bargained, does not pay to fill hard-to-staff schools or subjects, and is not based on “education employee evaluation, student performance, or attendance.”

That last provision is important. It doesn’t say “student test scores,” it says “student performance.” It doesn’t say “education employee evaluation by a principal or other administrator.” It says “education employee evaluation.”

Much of this language is the result of a long debate at the 2000 NEA Representative Assembly, where an attempt to soften the union’s opposition to performance pay backfired, and ended with a toughening of the language.

In 2007, NEA President Reg Weaver asked the union’s Professional Standards and Practice Committee to review and make recommendations about NEA’s performance pay policies. In February 2008, the committee concluded:

“First and foremost, the Committee reached consensus that current NEA policy provides important guidelines to its affiliates who are dealing with any pay system questions and that there is no need to alter current NEA policy at this time.”

I think President Obama’s notion of performance pay falls well short of replacing the traditional salary schedule. But after hearing him speak on the issue several times, I am persuaded he does actually mean performance pay, and he is in fact at odds with NEA on the matter. Despite the union’s public statements that they’re all on the same page (“He means national certification. No, really!”), either the President or the NEA will be forced to blink on this one.


7 thoughts on “NEA on Merit Pay, Without the Sugar Coating”

  1. ‘That last provision is important. It doesn’t say “student test scores,” it says “student performance.” It doesn’t say “education employee evaluation by a principal or other administrator.” It says “education employee evaluation.”’

    How do these people get away with it? Aren’t they ashamed of themselves?

  2. While these quotes sound pretty damning, it should be noted that there are performance pay systems in place in various places around the country. They have varying names and varying approaches. The ones that are working best I think (MN and Denver) are in places where they were negotiated with unions in partnership with administrators. So while the NEA rhetoric is nice blog fodder, the truth is more nuanced. When local unions rely on collective bargaining principles and can negotiate in good faith with districts, then there is room for movement on performance pay.

    I hope more teachers will recognize this trend as an opportunity to bring about reform. We shouldn’t dig in our heels to oppose it, but rather insist that it be done properly. I am in total agreement with NEA that student test scores on most standardized tests should not be used for performance pay. (I’ve written about that idea in Teacher Magazine:

    There’s a good report researched and written by teachers in the Teacher Leaders Network, part of the Center For Teaching Quality, that further describes principles behind which more teachers would stand in the design and implementation of a high quality performance pay system:

  3. David,

    You’re correct in that performance pay systems have been negotiated by NEA affiliates in a few places. What you’ve left out is those negotiations occurred without the approval or participation of NEA, and with much opposition within the union.

    What you have described as “NEA rhetoric” is in fact the official policy of the union, voted on and approved by delegates from all state affiliates year after year. Until that changes, the pay systems you describe will continue to be isolated and rare.

  4. Give administrators a ‘salary cap’ and make it their job to hire the best people they can with it. Let them pay what they need to, to whom they need to, to get the results they need. Judge them by the results–reward them if more students show improvement, fire them if they don’t.

    What is so hard about that?

  5. The problem with all merit pay systems in public schools is that the public schools are not a business. In a business, hign performers are paid more out of the increased income they create. In school systems, the higher pay for the so-called high performers has to be accomplished by paying less to those who are not so designated. When that is done, it becomes very hard to staff ALL teaching positions with highly-qualified educators.
    Historically, all merit pay systems have come a cropper on the issue of cost, and are then terminated, not by the union, but by the public officials who have run out of money to fund the system. This is what happened in the late 1980’s, when Republican Tom Davis caused the termination of Fairfax County, Virginia’s “career ladder” program, over the objection of the Fairfax Education Association and Mary Hatwood Futrell, the then president of the National Education Association.
    There is now a merit pay system in place throughout much of the country. It is certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. One has to ask why Barack Obama would want to grant higher pay to teachers who have not achieved this certification.
    National Board certification carries with it the advantage of avoiding the corruption, favortism and nepotism to which too many decisions about who is a good teacher have fallen prey in the past.

  6. Perhaps we can learn from business and model the teacher pay for performance systems used in the private sector – like at AIG and Goldman Sachs? Where are all these alleged successful pay for performance systems that work so well in the private sector? And why do we constantly want to inflict the private business sector policies used in the US on our education system? It can’t be as a result of the success of US companies.

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