Merit Pay for Teachers Just Doesn't Pay Off

This week, The New York Times had a front-page article on teachers — always a moment of excitement for us. But, as is all too often the case, the article celebrated the success of yet another scheme for merit pay — this time, with funding largely from Exxon — paying students from poor communities $100 each for passing the AP Math or Science exam, and also paying teachers for every student who passed the test. 1,853 teachers participated last year — with more than half of the teachers earning at least $2000. (One teacher in Arkansas earned a whopping $12,500 because 65 of his students passed the test.)

This is yet another experiment in “pay for performance” or merit pay, but follow-up studies of other such experiments (many costing much more) reveal that positive outcomes for merit pay schemes are actually short-lived — with no research showing that pay for performance has resulted in better teaching or learning over the long term.

The operant words here are “over the long term.” How long will Exxon maintain its commitment to this project, and how soon, if ever, will strapped school districts be able to adopt this model? We, along with other teachers, have seen it all before. Throw some quick money at the problem, but when the money dries up — so does the experiment.

It seems we haven’t learned anything from history. The notion that student performance can be improved by offering teachers monetary rewards was proved a dud as far back as 1710. That’s when merit pay was first tried in England. Curricula were narrowed to include only easily assessed subjects, and cheating by both inspectors and teachers made the system ultimately untenable. The plan was ultimately judged unsound policy, and dropped.

In this country, the 1950s saw a rise of interest in merit pay, and in 1969 President Richard Nixon championed “performance contracting.” Still, financial incentives failed to produce expected gains while generating damaging effects such as the falsification of school records and teaching to the test to artificially boost scores. The inability of contractors to deliver innovative teaching strategies and the dismal absence of results doomed performance contracting.

Yet, pay for performance initiatives erupt more regularly than Old Faithful. Whole truckloads of various schemes are being planned, or are now in progress, in about (at last count) one-third of all states.

Ardent supporters of pay for performance point to evidence of positive results that can be found, if one looks hard enough. They argue that Americans value hard work and results, and our capitalist system rewards measurable results. Sports, professions and corporations offer bonuses and salary increases to high-performing employees. Why should teaching be the exception? The motivating factor of extra cash should translate into smarter teaching and better results for our children, they say. Opportunities for better pay should also keep more good teachers in the classroom.

If you want to wade through the dozens of papers, studies, research reports, policy statements and initiative proposals (as we have so often done), don’t be surprised if you end up dazed and confused.

However, our 30 years of classroom teaching, educational research and coaching principals and teachers have given us a point of view on this issue, and it isn’t a favorable one.

Let us state unequivocally: If the ultimate goal is the improvement of teaching and learning over the long haul, pay for performance ain’t never gonna work. There are many reasons why, but here are our two major concerns.

First, other than raw test scores, student success is difficult to define and to measure. For just one example, look to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which has already proven how the various unleveled playing fields in the American education system inherently set up a wide variety of standards and expectations. Consider the diverse needs of English Language Learners, Special Education Students, and low income neighborhoods, and you’ll see why it would be a vexing exercise attempting to define standards of success for American schools when the stakes are cash in the pockets of real teachers.

But second, and even vastly more important, pay for performance pits teachers against teachers and helps defeat cooperation and collaboration among teachers and especially among teachers working in teams.

In places where variations of merit pay have been tried, teachers who once worked as a team and shared solutions cooperatively, merit pay has forced teachers to adopt a more “I’m out for myself and my own students” attitude. A major goal of teachers in teams should be to promote accountability for all students, not just the students of the teacher who’s trying hard to get her students’ scores upped another notch to reach a financial goal.

At the same time, as the value of teachers working in teams is becoming better understood, that model is becoming mandated in more and more schools and districts across the nation. That model is incompatible with merit pay. Inevitably, the two initiatives collide in a distressing outcome that can only result in harming those we want most to serve. The losers are both our teachers and our children.