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The Latest Wrinkle About Merit Pay for Teachers

They say if you live long enough you get to see it all. That's why I was not surprised to read about Impact Plus, billed as 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 the District of Columbia's merit pay program from others around the country is the dramatic increase offered teachers who are rated "highly effective" for two consecutive years. One middle school special education teacher saw her salary rise 38 percent, from $63,000 to $87,000.

I applaud efforts to identify and publicize successful instruction, but I have several questions about Impact Plus.

First, what are the criteria for the awarding of merit pay? Impact Plus uses significant gains on standardized test scores and glowing classroom observation ratings by administrators. But neither of these metrics passes muster. Consider test scores. 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, Aug. 29, 2010). As for classroom observations, teachers can violate a pile of effective instructional principles and still produce remarkable results with students. There is something about their personal style that is responsible (Testing! Testing! Allyn and Bacon, 2000).

Second, how likely is it that teachers can sustain the pace that accounted for their selection? Even the most dedicated teachers find that burnout is a constant concern ("Super Teachers Alone Can't Save Our Schools," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 13, 2011). Hollywood loves to portray heroic teachers taking chronically below basic students and turning them into proficient performers. But these teachers are exceptions, and like all exceptions they can't be duplicated on a large scale.

Finally, What role does favoritism play in the selection of teachers deemed worthy of merit pay? The reflexive response is to point to business as a model. But researchers at 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. Why would merit pay for teachers be any different? Two wrongs do not make a right.

Teachers are neither mercenaries nor missionaries. They do the best they can in spite of - not because of - the salaries they receive. Reformers who have never taught do not understand what motivates teachers. I don't think they ever will. All the more reason to be skeptical about "innovative" merit pay plans.

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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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