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Newest Wrinkle About Merit Pay for Teachers

They say if you live long enough, you get to see it all. So I wasn't surprised to read that the District of Columbia has implemented Impact Plus, the nation's most advanced merit pay system for public school teachers ("In Washington, Large Rewards in Teacher Pay," The New York Times, Jan. 1).

What distinguishes Impact Plus from performance pay strategies in other cities is the amount of money that teachers who are rated "highly effective" for two consecutive years can earn. One special education teacher saw her annual salary increase by 38 percent, from $63,000 to $87,000. The idea is to reward outstanding teachers early in their career as an incentive to keep them in the classroom.

I applaud identifying successful instruction and publicizing it. But I have several questions.

First, what criteria are used in making the determination? Impact Plus is based on standardized test scores that improve significantly and on ratings by administrators who are impressed by what they observe in the classroom. But these factors are hardly convincing. Consider standardized tests. Psychometricians agree that student test scores alone are not "sufficiently reliable and valid indicators of teacher effectiveness to be used in high-stakes personnel decisions, even when the most sophisticated statistical applications such as value-added modeling are employed" ("Problems With the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers," Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper, Aug. 29, 2010). Ratings by administrators are also suspect because teachers can violate a pile of effective instruction principles and still produce outstanding results. There is something about their individual style that is responsible (Testing! Testing! Allyn and Bacon, 2000).

Second, how likely is it that teachers will be able to sustain the pace that accounts for their merit pay? Heroic teachers who take chronically below basic students and turn them into proficient students is a favorite theme in Hollywood. But these star teachers are exceptions, and like all exceptions their success is not scalable ("Super Teachers Alone Can't Save Our Schools," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 13). Moreover, in order to be considered for merit pay, teachers must waive job security provisions. As a result, if they fail to qualify for bonuses, they run the risk of being fired. How many teachers are likely to choose such a heavy tradeoff?

Finally, what role does favoritism play in the process? The usual retort is that teaching should be no different from business. But researchers from Georgetown University who polled 303 senior-level executives across the country found that favoritism often plays a part in determining who gets promoted at work. Specifically, 84 percent of executives felt that favoritism occurred at their organizations. What makes Impact Plus impervious to the same thing? Two wrongs don't make a right.

Teachers are neither missionaries nor mercenaries. They try to do their best in spite of - not because of - the salaries they earn. Reformers will eventually find out that no matter how "innovative" pay plans are, they will do little to change how teachers do their jobs.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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