Teacher merit pay

Let’s take a brief respite from health care and Trump.  I was recently updating my education policy lecture and taking a look at merit pay.  Good post from Daniel Pink from a few years ago that nicely captures why merit pay does not work nearly so well as all it’s proponents are sure it must:

1. Some rewards backfire. Fifty years of social science tells us that “if-then” rewards – that is, “If you do this, then you get that” – are great for simple, routine tasks and not so great for complicated, creative tasks. Since teaching is creative and complex rather than simple and algorithmic, tying teacher pay to student performance (especially on standardized tests) flies in the face of the broad evidence.

2. Contingent pay for teachers just isn’t effective. What’s more, the specific evidence – a cluster of recent studies that have examined “if-then” pay schemes in schools – has shown them to be failures. See, for instance, this piece of research by Vanderbilt University or this one by Harvard’s Roland Fryer or this study by Rand that prompted the New York City public schools to abandon its pay-for-performance plan.

3. Money is still important. The fact that “if-then” motivators often go awry doesn’t mean that rewards in general or money in particular are bad. Not at all. The research shows that money matters. It just matters in a slightly different way than we suspect. Paying people unfairly — say, when Jane makes less than June for the same work — is extremely demotivating. And, of course, low salaries can deter some people from pursuing certain professions. Therefore, the best use of money as a motivator, at least for complex work, is to compensate people fairly and to try to take the issue of money off the table.  That means paying healthy base salaries… [emphasis mine]

5. We’ve got the wrong diagnosis. The notion that the central problem in American education is lack of teacher motivation is ludicrous. The vast majority of teachers in this country are some of the most hard-working, dedicated people you’ll ever meet – folks who work their butts off in difficult conditions for little recognition. Pay for performance is a weak prescription in part because it’s based on a faulty diagnosis…

7. Teaching isn’t investment banking. I find it peculiar that we single out teachers for “if-then” pay when we wouldn’t consider it for other public servants. Should we pay police officers based on how many tickets they write or whether the crime rate in their district drops? How about compensating soldiers based on whether our borders have been attacked or how many of their colleagues have been injured or killed? Would legislators, who are behind much of the bonuses-for-test-scores push, ever agree to hinge their own pay on whether budget deficits rose or fell?

Yes!  Number one, just pay all teachers more.  A lot more.  There can certainly be some financial rewards for especially meritorious teachers, but there is just evidence that such systems will do anything to increase teacher quality.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

10 Responses to Teacher merit pay

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    The Republican view on teacher pay is that teachers work shorter days and have the summer off so they shouldn’t be paid the same as “full time” workers.. Also they believe anyone can teach, no special skills required. And, since those who make policy are quite money motivated, those who are not must be unambitious and satisfied to work at a low paid, low status job.
    Besides that, they have to save money somewhere to avoid higher taxes for themselves.
    It almost goes without saying that 75% of teacher in K-12 are women.
    If anyone is offended by this view of Republican attitudest, I am soooo sorry.

    • Jon K says:

      I think it is very legitimate to consider that teachers only work 9 months a year. How does that make me an asshole?

      • Jon K says:

        Also, if we’re being honest, those who enter the education field, as a whole, score lower on aptitude and intelligence tests when compared with those who enter STEM careers and most other professions. Those facts, while unpleasant to point out, remain, nonetheless, facts.

      • Steve Greene says:

        Chicken and egg problem here. We’re *never* going to get enough of the best people entering teaching so long as we denigrate the profession and choose to disrespect its importance through low pay.

      • Jon K says:

        I get your point. However as long as the education school takes everyone were going to continue to have the system flooded with incompetent teachers. Why do schools of education put their emphasis on filling seats over maintaining the same standards as the rest of the university? It is shameful that someone who wouldn’t make the cut as a PS major would be considered a good fit for the school of education.

        While I spent most of my time in high school at an elite boarding school, I spent a semester at a public high school in NC. (Believe it or not I had a discipline issue my sophomore year and got kicked out. The nightmare I experienced in that single semester in NC public high school made me change my attitude 200%. Perhaps my drive to gain readmission then taught me valuable lessons that came in handy later in life.) I had teachers who could barely read out loud, let alone teach. As a sophomore in high school, I had a better grasp of English grammar and writing composition than my teacher that semester did.

      • R. Jenrette says:

        First, it’s more like 10 months. Second, they work so many hours off the clock that it’s offensive to say that they only work 9 or 10 months. Third, many spend the summer expanding their knowledge of their subject matter and their teaching methods. or just recuperating so they can face the next term.
        Most important, they face students in many cases who are ill prepared to be in school at all.
        They deal with poverty, sexual abuse and family disruption and a bureaucracy that often stifles innovation. All this with funds limited by penny wise pound foolish legislators.

      • Jon K says:

        My sister is a teacher. I know lots of school teachers. I have yet to meet one that doesn’t spend the majority of their time off doing what everyone else does on their time off. TheMy sister has even commented about having plenty of time to have and raise 2 kids, maintain a healthy work life balance, and she even had enough time to pursue a master’s degree as well.

        She was no slouch either. She was recognized as teacher of the year for her system. She’s too smart, and too good at what she does, to stay a classroom teacher. She has moved into a supervisory position and is on track to become an assistant principal soon.

        That’s what happens to good and smart teachers who are interested in being compensated better. They move into administrative positions.

        When I was in elementary school (I started kindergarten in 1989) we had one principal for the entire school. He or she had no assistants other than a secretary. I am amazed how that changed so dramatically. But now the best teachers become administrators. And they are compensated better.

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    That well describes the shame of it. Take the best teachers and move them out of teaching. I think many really good teachers prefer to stay actually teaching. They either sacrifice money and stay or they move into administration. For those that prefer administration, that’s fine but not for those who want that close relationship with their students. Shameful that they have to make that choice.
    Education needs to give up its business model and develop its own standards.

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