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Thoughts on the Failure of Merit Pay

Dear Deborah,

Teacher merit pay is one of the hot "new" ideas of the moment. It has the wholehearted support of the Obama administration, which made it one of the criteria for states hoping to win a piece of Race to the Top funding. The Obama administration has also proposed spending nearly $1 billion for merit-pay programs in fiscal 2011. The president never tires of saying that we should pay more to "our best teachers," and we know that he approves of using standardized test scores to identify the "best teachers." Now, with the ascendancy of very conservative Republican governors and legislatures, merit pay is on the front burner in many states.

Let me say, as an aside, that it is breathtaking to see how closely aligned are the agendas of conservative governors and the Obama administration when it comes to education.

It is curious that teachers vigorously oppose merit pay, even though they are the ones who are supposed to reap the rewards. What do they know? They know that merit pay undermines collaboration and teamwork. They know that it corrupts the culture of the school.

But corporate reformers think they know best, so they continue to push for a reward system that will give bonuses for "effective" teachers (those whose students get higher test scores) and, thus, magically, make teaching attractive to the theoretical "best and brightest," those graduates of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford who would stay in teaching if only they could compete every year for an extra $5,000 or so.

Here are some reasons to believe that the corporate reformers are wrong about merit pay.

Merit pay has been tried again and again since the 1920s. Sometimes scores go up, sometimes they don't, but the programs never seem to make much difference and eventually disappear.

The most rigorous trial of merit pay was conducted recently in Nashville by the National Center on Performance Incentives. It offered an extraordinary bonus of $15,000 to teachers if they could get higher scores from their students. Over a three-year period, there was no difference between the scores obtained by the treatment group or the control group. The bonus didn't matter.

Roland Fryer of Harvard University just released his study of New York City's much-touted school-wide merit-pay program.* Fryer says it made no difference in terms of student outcomes and actually depressed performance in some schools and for some groups of students.

Here are a few readings that I have found useful.

Andrea Gabor wrote an opinion piece recently for Education Week that describes what she learned from the work of W. Edwards Deming, the eminent business consultant. I learned a lot by reading her book The Man Who Discovered Quality, about Deming's philosophy. Chapter 9 summarizes Deming's strong opposition to merit ranking and merit pay. Bottom line: It is bad for corporations. It gets everyone thinking about what is good for himself or herself and leads to forgetting about the goals of the organization. It incentivizes short-term thinking and discourages long-term thinking.

Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational explains why money is not as good a motivator as a sense of purpose. Ariely is an economist of human behavior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he has demonstrated again and again that people will work harder for idealistic reasons than for a promise of money. He warns of the danger of shifting education from "social norms" to "market norms." This is precisely what the corporate reformers want to do.

And then there is Daniel Pink, who has written Drive and also created a delightful YouTube video, to reinforce the view that a sense of purpose, the desire to make a difference, is a better motivator than cash on the table.

Merit pay is the idea that never works and never dies.

Diane

* After this blog was initially published, Education Week replaced the link to Roland Fryer's study with a reference to the more-recent study for accuracy reasons, per the author's request.

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