Friday, October 11, 2013

Dissecting the idea of "merit pay" for teachers

Another hot-button topic in K-12 education is "merit pay" for teachers.  Like many "reforms" being experimented with in our public schools, this is an idea borrowed from the corporate world.  And like so many of the corporate reforms, it's ill-suited for public schools.

Traditionally teachers were paid largely based on experience and education.  But there is legislation pending our state House of Representatives which would shift the focus of teacher pay to "performance."  Ostensibly, this means how well their students perform on standardized tests.  The idea behind this idea is straightforward - it incentivizes teachers to produce high test scores.  The teachers most successful at producing high test scores get bonuses.  Teachers in the middle get nothing extra.  Teachers on the bottom get laid off.

Empirically we know this idea does not work in education.  Diane Ravitch, a public school advocate and education historian, summarizes:
Merit pay is a zombie idea. It fails and fails and fails again, but legislators just want more of it.
This teacher explains why he doesn’t want it.
There are many reasons to oppose merit pay.
1. It doesn’t work. It failed just in the past few years in Nashville, where the bonus for higher scores was $15,000. It failed in New York City, it failed in Chicago.
2. It has never worked. It has been tried and failed repeatedly for nearly 100 years.
3. Modern social science says that it will never work, that when you pay people a bonus to do what they want to do you actually decrease their motivation. [Teacher: why I oppose merit pay, Diane Ravitch's Blog, July 1, 2013.]
In Michigan, we have done more investigation into this idea.  In 2011 as part of Michigan's teacher tenure reforms, the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness was established. The MCEE was a temporary commission with five voting members.  Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appointed three, and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, and Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, R-Marshall each appointed one.  The group was tasked with judging how the state should evaluate teachers.  The MCEE emphatically rejected "merit pay":
... the report explicitly advises against using teacher evaluations as a basis for determining merit pay under a "pay for performance" system.
"Educator evaluations must not be used to determine merit pay," the report states. "There is insufficient evidence to support pay for performance programs at this time. Research in education and other fields suggests that performance-related pay and the monitoring systems that come with it can backfire, decreasing motivation and quality performance." ['Pay for performance' not recommended in Michigan teacher evaluation group's report,, July 24, 2013.]
Just intuitively there are a lot of problems with this idea:
... What will the measurement be? Will this cause even more reliance on testing? Will more teachers teach to the test? What about elective teachers and classes where there simply is no standardized test? (Or will we simply continue to eliminate the arts and other electives from the curriculum?) Who will get to teach the honors classes, in which students will naturally score the highest on state tests? Who would be foolish enough to seek out struggling learners or high-poverty districts?
Perhaps most concerning of all, merit pay and performance-based layoffs will inadvertently create a competitive culture among teachers, quietly pitting them against one another. Why would a teacher want to share his phenomenal “highly effective” lessons with his colleague if he is now competing with her for a job? Under new Michigan legislation that creates performance-based layoffs, this is an obvious outcome. ... Teachers are not salespeople, competing with colleagues for who can sell the most of a commodity. ... [Why Merit Pay Doesn’t Work, Kristy Placido, July 15, 2013.]
This might be the key reason why the idea of teacher merit pay is so hopelessly flawed.  There are a lot of reasons to choose teaching as a career, but getting rich isn't one of them.  People might choose to be teachers because they love teaching, they love kids, they value public service, they value a reliable income and reasonable work schedule, or similar reasons.  But a person who is mainly motivated to accumulate money is unlikely to be teaching to begin with.  Most teachers need neither a carrot nor a stick to be motivated to do their job.  They just need the tools and the space to do it.

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