Teacher merit pay
March 9, 2017 10 Comments
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.