The history of merit pay in schools is almost as old as public education in America. It has failed many times over and in many forms. Many have pursued pay-for-performance (PfP) for teachers as a panacea for alleged public school ills. Progressives and conservatives have promoted it. Both President G.W. Bush and President Obama have supported it.
Chapter 12 of Diane Ravitch's brilliant new book, Reign of Error, lays out the old and new history related to merit pay in schools. In short, old schools and new schools of many types pushed by many different entities have failed to implement successful PfP plans.
Unfortunately, my kids' district keeps signaling a move from the current teacher salary schedule to a complicated, labor-intensive, stack-ranked pay system for teachers. I worry a PfP is being produced by local officials without a thorough look at the educational reasoning and research.
Utilizing financial incentives for teacher leaders (who take on added responsibilities) and for retaining and recruiting professionals serving in areas of teacher shortages seems sensible. However, a relentless pursuit of a pay-for-performance plan is not best for my profession, my students, my kids' schools, or me.
Teacher accountability and compensation structure are far from the greatest problems facing public education. The PfP discussion is a distraction from the eight ball in public education. The more relevant point is that teachers and their compensation packages were never the problem.
Social science research over the last few decades has shown that two thirds of student achievement is a product of out-of-school factors - and among the most powerful of those is economic status.
Reformers should yield to the latest research on this complex matter. As Dan Pink's motivational research shows, labor involving cognitive skills--like teaching--does not improve with incentivized pay. The masses of teachers I know are not motivated, like rock stars, by reward and recognition. Pink advises paying employees reasonably well and then leave them to create. As Pink said, "Pay people enough so that they are not thinking about money, they're thinking about the work." The current, well-defined pay schedules already used by most school districts provide the security necessary to motivate educators.
A recent NY Times article about a failed stacked-ranking evaluation system at Microsoft is worthy of review. Here is a telling excerpt:
One of the most hated aspects of the stack-ranking process was that, throughout its various forms over the years, it required managers to grade their subordinates on a bell curve. That meant that a few people got great scores, many people got average scores and a few people got bad scores...The demise of stack ranking is another sign of the sweeping changes happening at Microsoft, including a major restructuring now underway that is aimed at increasing cooperation...The negative publicity around Microsoft’s old employee review system reverberated loudly around the company, according to people who work there. It most likely was a deterrent to some recruits, too.Sue Altman did not miss the irony in this Microsoft development. Altman pointedly asks,
The big business method of evaluation that now rules our schools is no longer the big business method of evaluation? And collaboration and teamwork, which have been abandoned by our schools in favor of the big business method of evaluation, is in?Experienced teachers should be given autonomy along with the resources and a labor structure to work collaboratively. The best things I have done in my professional career have involved working directly with other staff on common initiatives. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are built around the concept of collaboration partially because this motivates many teachers and learners.
For many, motivation is found in relationships. As a now-retired teacher used to preach often, "It's all about how you treat people." Lots of my professional development training over the past decade has focused on building relationships with students. Schools should focus on people. Stacked-ranking pay systems put the focus on data and pits professional against professional. Behavior science shows high-stakes, data-driven systems in schools are dangerous (see Campbell's Law). I contend that collaborating with teachers is more "productive" than a complicated, labor-intensive stack-ranking system.
Many faulty studies promote the idea of PfP. A flawed Arkansas merit pay study has been repeatedly promoted by numerous free market think tanks. This makes sense since the study's funding came from the bias Walton Foundation. A peer review of the study found the study's conclusions unsound. The fate of this study was outlined by a teacher leader in Little Rock, Arkansas, who wrote me,
The plan remained for three years... the test scores had not increased at a rate greater than schools with similar student populations. In fact, if I recall correctly, one school's growth lagged behind "like" schools. When presented with the evidence, the LRSD School Board had no choice but to discontinue the program.In the face of this evidence, it is concerning my kids' district continues to cite the Arkansas study as a successful merit pay plan even though the study's PfP plan is no longer in existence.
School officials should take more stock in the gold standard of merit pay studies. Vanderbilt economists conducted one of the most thorough tests of merit pay. The bonus was $15,000. It failed to raise student test scores.
One pay study worth noting is the recently publicized Talent Transfer Initiative (TTI) study. Early reports in this study indicate gains in math and reading scores in high-poverty schools. Beware this study's findings are already being scrutinized. However, implementation details of the TTI pay plan are significantly different than other pay studies and worth noting. For instance, a $20,000 bonus was paid mostly to highly-educated (Masters degrees+), highly-experienced (12 years average), and older (42 years average) teachers who applied to teach and remain in the program for 2 years. Experience, education, age, and teacher willingness to participate seem to matter in this case. The TTI findings interests me simply because I have long supported aligning our most experienced teachers with the neediest schools and students.
Pay notice that pay-for-performance advocates will incorrectly cite this recruitment-pay study as a merit pay study. Unlike other teacher pay studies, this was a low-stakes study. Testing scores were not connected to the bonus payout. Teachers selected were paid the "bonus" for their service regardless of student performance.
Further note the limitations in the TTI findings--such as the achievement gains were only noticeable in elementary grades and that only a small percentage of qualified candidates were enticed by the $20,000 carrot. In addition, like all PfP plans, the TTI study does not address what is most important for success in schools and life.
While pay-for-performance has no known link to what goes on in the classroom, the traditional teacher salary schedule system has many advantages, including:
Fairness: A salary schedule equally values each teacher because we work together to educate students and are not in competition with one another. Also, it is worth remembering that standardized pay played an important role in public education history by eliminating unequal pay between men and women, elementary and high school educators, and white and minority teachers. Opening the door to differentiated pay reopens the door to unfairness.
Objectivity: A salary schedule protects teachers from the whims and biases of administrators, who might award merit pay based on personal reasons or on a teacher’s willingness to speak up on issues affecting students and school staff. Our students benefit from a system based on objective criteria that all teachers can attain and understand.
Efficiency: The salary schedule allows for predictable funding year-to-year, and requires minimal administrative effort to supervise. The increased bureaucracy sure to follow any PfP plan will distract teachers and administrators from working with students.
Novel ideas--like PfP--must be scrutinized with as much vigor as traditional teacher salary schedules have been worked over by the "no excuses" reformers. I remain unconvinced that a pay overhaul will improve schools, teaching, and learning. A stack-ranking system will bring unnecessary erraticism to my kids' school district.