The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Teachers & Merit Pay: The Research Says It Doesn’t Work

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 4, 2010

There are a lot of people in the political class talking about the need for education reform.  In fact, being a teacher of over 15 years myself, I can definitely say that on the science & mathematics side of things we need to get our butts in gear or we are in serious trouble.  So, I’m all for “education reform”, but I am concerned that many who wish to make necessary changes to our primary & secondary public educational system could be pursuing ineffective solutions or even make things worse.

For example, one of the buzz phrases going around in many education circles these days is “merit pay.”  The whole idea of merit pay is that you tie the salaries of teachers to the performance of their students, either by assessing how much kids have learned via their grades or on standardized tests.  At first blush, this sounds like a great idea – the really good, energetic, and inspiring teachers get paid more and the lazy slugs get paid less.  Meanwhile, it gives other teachers an incentive to become more involved & innovative in the classroom so that – the logic goes – they get the students to learn more.

But there’s one big problem with the entire concept of merit pay: it seems that it doesn’t work. In a recent National Public Radio story it was revealed that there is now extensive research which calls into question the validity of merit pay…

Study: Teacher Bonuses Don’t Improve Test Scores

Offering big bonuses to teachers failed to raise students’ test scores in a three-year study released Tuesday that calls into question the Obama administration’s push for merit pay to improve education.

The study, conducted in the metropolitan Nashville school system by Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives, was described by the researchers as the nation’s first scientifically rigorous look at merit pay for teachers.

It found that students whose teachers were offered bonuses of up to $15,000 a year for improved test scores registered the same gains on standardized exams as those whose teachers were given no such incentives.

That’s some pretty damning evidence against the merit pay concept.  At least, it is damning evidence against the manner in which merit pay is being proposed to be implemented the way that many education reformers wish to see it done.  Personally, though I have some ideological hangups with the idea of merit pay (full disclosure: I am a strong proponent of teachers’ unions), I am not willing to completely throw the baby out with the bathwater on the basis of this one study; I think more research is necessary.  However, I think it is worth slowing down the rush by many to push merit pay as some kind of cure-all for the broken parts of our public education system.  I like how the lead researcher of the study puts it:

“I think most people agree today that the current way in which we compensate teachers is broken,” said Matthew Springer, executive director of the Vanderbilt center and lead researcher on the study. “But we don’t know what the better way is yet.” [emphasis added]

As I said before, I’m all for reforming education & getting bad teachers out of the profession (we need it), but we cannot simply get hung up on the latest fad to come along (and if you’ve been in education in the U.S. for any length of time, you know that such fads are a common occurrence).  In that sense, this research serves as a cautionary tale.  And, in my opinion, we cannot expect to find one solution that will fit all of the problems in our public education system which varies so widely in terms of socio-economic conditions, ethnicity, culture, etc.  We are going to have to probably find local solutions & local reforms to the specific problems of local schools – which means our education reformers should avoid the temptation to simply jump onto the merit pay bandwagon because it promises to fix everything.  Solutions to such complex societal problems are not so easy.

In closing, I’d like to finish with the final paragraph of the NPR article reporting on the study:

“It’s not enough to say, ‘I’ll pay you more if you do better.’ You’ve got to help people know how to do better,” said Amy Wilkins, vice president of the Education Trust, a Washington think tank. “Absolutely we should reward them once they do better, but to think merit pay alone will get them there is insane.”

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2 Responses to “Teachers & Merit Pay: The Research Says It Doesn’t Work”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stephanie Zvan, Matt Lowry. Matt Lowry said: Teachers & Merit Pay: The Research Says It Doesn’t Work – http://tinyurl.com/25zztkl [...]

  2. dhuisjen2 said

    I’d consider Dan Pink’s RSA talk on motivation to be an essential starting point for any discussion of the effectiveness of merit pay in any field: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc The issue should be identifying effective teachers, rewarding them justly and sufficiently to keep them doing what they do, and give them the room to make the kind of differences they got into the business to make.

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