We all want our kids to receive a good quality education and be prepared for their future, right? 

If you send your child to public school, chances are you’re mainly relying on a handful of teachers to prepare your child for adulthood by teaching them fundamental academics and skills. You expect your kids to be taught how to read, write, do math, and understand history and science. 

When they’re in high school, they’ll be coached on more advanced topics and be prepared for college or to enter the workforce. At least, that’s the idea. 

But what happens when your kids aren’t learning because they aren’t being taught well? What happens to their future then? 

In the realm of public education, a “one-size-fits-all” method of fact regurgitation has been applied in the classroom far too often and for too long—essentially mass-producing student “widgets.” The concept of success (and how kids supposedly get there) has become distorted, causing many students to fail.  

What contributes to this stale mentality and what are some ways we can creatively find a solution? 

Are Schools Building Widgets?

Dr. Karen Hiltz,  former secretary and treasurer of NWEF and former school board member, recognized this mindset when she dealt with school administration. “As I went further in my tenure, I came to the conclusion that ‘yeah, I think education is a business of building widgets.’ Because we have this ‘one size fits all’ mentality!”

What commonly happens in schools, instead of deep, meaningful learning, is mere memorization. This is when students are compelled only to memorize certain facts so they can put the right answer on a test and pass. If a student is good at this form of academic regurgitation, he is successful—a great student! 

But if a child doesn’t have his facts memorized… well. There’s something wrong with him, not the cookie-cutter standard he’s being crammed into, some school claim. This mere memorization method doesn’t lead to the fulfillment of true learning. 

The Atlantic paints this picture: “Memorization is a frontage road: It runs parallel to the best parts of learning, never intersecting. It’s a detour around all the action, a way of knowing without learning, of answering without understanding.” 

Do students need to have strong memories and know fundamental facts? Absolutely. But if we really want to help kids succeed, we have to look ahead to the future, teach them to think critically, and equip them with skills that will help each of them thrive in whatever environment they enter.

We have to reframe success in education by helping students learn from hands-on, in-depth instruction where they’re allowed to use their creativity and learn from mistakes—not just memorize facts so they will fit into a standard. 

Another heavy downside of relying on shallow memorization to “educate” is that students are likely to become more and more bored with their studies as time goes on—resulting in dropouts and young adults without the tools to economically care for themselves.

Engagement and Choice for Students

How can we begin breaking out of the “one-size-fits-all” box and help children receive a more holistic, enriching education throughout their entire K-12 career?

Matthew Biggins, in his article entitled “How America Schools Set Students Up to Fail,” says, “The goal of education is to encourage students to create a better world for themselves and others, while equipping them with the skills to do so. Learning by doing is one of the most effective learning strategies. 

“We are wired to learn from our mistakes, not to go through life without ever making any mistakes. Educators should teach students processes for success, not teaching to tests. Understanding that learning (and life) is a process of trying, failing, learning, and failing better breaks us out of the institutionalized fear that we can’t screw up. We need to screw up. This will help get rid of the distinction between school and ‘the real world.’”

To begin this process of learning by doing, schools must implement a strategy of “engagement and choice” for students, says the Thomas Fordham Institute in their study entitled “What teens want from their schools.” Teens, as a group, are most likely to disengage with school, dropping out altogether.

In the study, the Fordham Institute analyzed 6 subgroups of students and their aptitudes towards subject matter, teachers, peers, activities, etc. The Institute points out that, “For some [students], the relationship with the teacher is key; for others, it is the subject matter or the social aspects of schooling. For still others, the level of engagement varies based on the extent that their emotional needs can be met in the classroom—or the extent that they actively participate in class.” 

“Tailoring schooling and instruction to such needs, preferences, and tendencies has the potential to pay dividends in greater engagement—and ultimately in achievement gains” the Institute concludes. 

What About the Teachers?

Remember Dr. Hiltz’s statement about schools making widgets? In her interview with NWEF President Melvin Adams, Hiltz also points out a possible solution to helping improve the quality of education and the experience of each individual student. 

I was at a meeting of administrators and teachers who were talking about the pay scale… So I’m sitting there listening, and I said, ‘Well, have you ever thought of, maybe, pay banding? A pay-banding scale? Or performance-based pay scale?’” Hiltz asked. 

While the school wasn’t enthusiastic about her suggestion, we are going to explore the merits of her idea a bit further. 

So what is merit based/performance pay? According to Salary.com, “The term ‘pay-for-performance compensation’ refers to performance-based pay programs where an employee is incentivized and rewarded for achieving goals or objectives.” 

Is this type of compensation viable for teachers? Why would it be a good idea? How might it have adverse effects? This topic is highly controversial in the education world, with some flat-out rejecting it, saying it would never work. Others believe it’s possible and would solve a host of the education system’s problems. 

High school history and journalism teacher David Cutler wrote a compelling article on the subject of merit pay for teachers. In his post, he quotes Dr. Gary Ritter (co-author of A Straightforward Guide to Teacher Merit Pay: Encouraging and Rewarding Schoolwide Improvement) saying, “…the possibility of earning financial rewards will motivate current teachers to focus their efforts on student achievement through innovation and additional effort.”

The Challenges of Implementing Merit-Pay

While that sounds great, actually implementing this system is quite challenging. 

Because how is teacher effectiveness evaluated? 

Standardized tests work about as well for this as they do for truly evaluating students’ academic performance. Because, as David Cutler puts it, One year, I could have exceptionally bright, motivated students, eager to learn and perform at the highest levels. Another year, strictly by chance, I could be faced with having students who lack those admirable qualities,” leaving his “effectiveness score” in the dust. 

The Rand Corporation states, Opponents [of performance-based compensation] claim it is difficult or impossible to devise a measure of student achievement that accurately reflects the teacher’s efforts and that isn’t unduly influenced by factors outside the teacher’s control.” 

But Cutler has another idea. “Administrators need to devise an evaluation system based on fairness and transparency….[For example], a medical resident might evaluate or perform surgery on a patient, but not without close oversight by a specialist. The same should hold true for matching effective and passionate teacher-mentors with newer recruits, or less effective veterans.” 

But hold on a second. 

If merit-based pay is implemented, won’t that spike division among teachers as they compete to earn higher paychecks?

That is definitely worth thinking about. ThoughtCo. says, “High-stakes Merit Pay systems would inevitably encourage dishonesty and corruption. Educators would be financially motivated to lie about testing and results. Teachers might have legitimate suspicions of principal favoritism. Complaints and lawsuits would abound. Again, all of these messy morality issues serve only to distract from the needs of our students who simply need our energies and attention to learn to read and succeed in the world.​”

However, Cutler again points out that, “If a school offered just 10 bonuses to the top-ten teachers, this would certainly wreak havoc… Instead, all teachers should qualify to earn up to a maximum bonus. Moreover, with a large portion of one’s evaluation tied to effective group participation, teachers would find greater incentive to share and discuss lessons and approaches. This scenario encourages teachers to support each other professionally and financially.” 

That’s more like it! 

The Time is Ripe for Change 

There are many more aspects to performance-based pay for teachers that require consideration—which, I encourage you to do by digging further into the sources in this article, thinking for yourself, and finding out more! However, this article presents some baby steps toward building a better system where teachers are appropriately encouraged and enabled to enrich students. 

In an otherwise competitive, hot-tempered and divisive education climate, it seems to me that public, charter, and independent schools have a great opportunity to work together on how best to implement performance evaluations and, by extension, merit-based pay,” Cutler says.

Biggins adds, We need to transition from a system of regimented, outdated schooling to one that inspires action and a lifelong interest in learning.”

I agree. 

In the Land of Opportunity—the country of endless options—we have fertile ground to work with. We can always be reforming, refining, and molding education for the better. 

Let’s get out of that stifling one-size-fits-all mentality and work with teachers and students to improve our schools.


  1. The Great Teacher Salary Debate - NWEF December 13, 2021 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    […] possible solution is a merit-paid salary system. We explored this concept in a recent article about the one-size-fits-all approach often seen in schools today. In the […]

  2. […] more about alternative success metrics for teachers and schools? Read more with our articles “Two Ways to Escape ‘One-Size-Fits-All’ Instruction” and “How Do You Measure School […]

  3. […] Learn more about the challenges of “one-size-fits-all” education. […]

  4. […] more about alternative success metrics for teachers and schools? Read more with our articles “Two Ways to Escape ‘One-Size-Fits-All’ Instruction” and “How Do You Measure School […]

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