The Importance of Terminology

In a recent report, “Alternative Compensation Terminology: Considerations for Education Stakeholders, Policymakers, and the Media,” the Center for Educator Compensation Reform stresses the importance of language in compensation reform.

Many terms today are thrown around interchangeably to describe compensation reform initiatives. The lack of clarity creates confusion among stakeholders about the components of a performance-based compensation program, which can lead to a lack of support among the school district’s stakeholders.

The report includes suggestions for how to discuss compensation reform initiatives with clarity and consistency. It concludes with three recommendations:

•  Discontinue the use of the term “merit pay.” This term originated during the 1980s when such compensation typically was based on subjective principal evaluations.

At that time, teachers expressed significant opposition to merit pay. Today, the term continues to carry a level of stigma. It may be difficult to separate the negative past associations with the term from current efforts. 

•  Ensure that stakeholders, policymakers and the media use consistent language to describe compensation reform. The design phase of the compensation reform program should include special efforts to develop a communication plan that uses clear and consistent language to describe the program title, goals and design features. 

•  Ensure the initiative describes the specific measures of performance that the program will use to determine -educator pay. This approach will provide stakeholders, policymakers and the media with a clear understanding of what the compensation reform program entails, instead of allowing them to speculate. As a result, each stakeholder group should be able to answer the following questions: Who is being rewarded? What activities are being rewarded and at what level — schoolwide or individual?

The Center for Educator Compensation Reform is a collaboration among Westat, Learning Point Associates, Synergy Enterprises, Vanderbilt University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Its primary responsibility is to support the grantees of the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, with a secondary mission to raise national awareness of alternative and effective strategies for educator compensation.

— Sabrina Laine, Amy Potemski and Cortney Rowland