Most people would agree that workers should be paid for doing a job well. If a lawyer wins most of his cases, he deserves a hefty salary. If a supermarket clerk excels at packing groceries, she deserves a raise. Merit pay is simply the process of paying employees extra for increased performance.
However, this formula becomes problematic when applied to teachers. Though the idea of merit pay for teachers dates back to the 1860s, it hasn’t been implemented on a wide scale in this country. In fact, only about 500 of 14,000 school districts in the U.S. implement some form of merit pay with teachers and staff.
While proponents argue that giving bonuses to teachers for high student performance would motivate teachers and benefit students, critics of merit pay say that it is ineffective and promotes competition between teachers.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a proponent. While he stresses that merit pay is not a “silver bullet,” he does believe that it can be a useful part of a comprehensive approach to education reform.
“I think rewarding excellence in education is really important, whether it’s great teachers or great principals or great superintendents or districts or states. I think we haven’t talked enough and celebrated success enough,” he said.
Duncan has had firsthand experience with the issue. In 2007, he was the chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools when it instituted its first performance-pay plan in high-needs schools. The four-year project, which was devised in connection with the Chicago Teachers Union, allows for annual bonuses of $2,000 and up for teachers, principals, and other staff at schools where student achievement increases, as measured in part by state standardized assessments.
Though results of the pilot project have not yet been tabulated, Duncan is optimistic that staff incentives will result in student improvement. If not, he’ll look for another reform. “I’m very interested to figure out how you change that incentive structure to get your best talent where the greatest need is,” he said.
“How do you get the children who need the most help, the adults with the greatest ability to help them?”
Matthew Springer would like to know that answer, too. As director of the federally funded National Center on Performance Incentives and assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, he says one of the problems with evaluating the value of merit pay is that so few studies have been done to prove whether it works.
“Within the realm of performance-based pay, we have about 10 rigorous studies that have occurred within the education system. So we need a lot more,” said Springer, who noted that cigarettes were deemed harmful after 6,500 studies proved the link to cancer.
Springer recently completed a three-year study of Nashville, Tenn., schools that evaluated whether giving bonus pay to teachers resulted in higher student achievement. Despite paying out more than $1.27 million in bonuses, Springer found that they made little difference.
“We found no systematic difference on average between those students who were enrolled in classrooms instructed by treatment teachers [those who would receive bonuses] and those instructed by what we would call controlled teachers,” he said.
If efforts to measure the effectiveness of merit pay are problematic, the criteria used to award merit pay are even more so. How do you measure what a “good” teacher is?
Most school districts fall back on standardized tests, measuring student improvement by change in test scores. This leads to one of the biggest criticisms of merit pay, that the criteria for bonuses merely measures increase in test scores, not what students actually learn, and compels teaching to the test.
Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University and former Assistant Secretary of Education, says this focus on tests is misguided.
"The goal of education is much broader than test scores,” she explained. “Education is, first of all, a combination of developing knowledge and skills and character. And if a school develops knowledge and skills but no character, then that’s not a good school.
”Standardized tests are indicators of knowledge, but that’s all, she said. “It’s like in terms of your health, you don’t live your life to get a 98.6 on your thermometer.”
Ravitch said that merit pay had been implemented in the past to little positive effect. In fact, she claims the rationale behind it is flawed.
Citing Springer’s Nashville study, she says that an increase in pay doesn’t translate into an increase in teacher effectiveness. “It just doesn’t work because most teachers are working as hard as they know how.”
Furthermore, Ravitch says merit pay can be divisive within the teaching community, since it instills individual competition and detracts from the goal of teaching children in the best ways possible.
“What teachers want is an atmosphere in which there is teamwork and collaboration, where they can agree, where they can sit around a table and talk about students and how to help them. And if they’re all fighting to get a few bucks more, then they don’t collaborate and the teamwork disappears,” she said.
Instead of paying for improved test scores, Ravitch would prefer a more holistic approach, such as paying teachers for increased effort outside the classroom to mentor students or teachers.
And until more research confirms or denies the effectiveness of “pay for performance,” Springer advises that the United States look to other reforms to improve its schools.
“We need to begin to innovate and experiment. And until we do so, I think the public education system in the U.S. isn’t going to realize the greatness that it could be experiencing.”
Eric Chen, 18, contributed to this story.
Copyright 2011 Y-Press