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Researchers Contend Merit-Pay Plans Are Likely To Repeat Failures of Past

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Sarasota, Fla--Education researchers meeting here last week cautioned advocates of merit pay for teachers to not forget that it has "a record of demonstrated failure."

Their messages of "gloom and doom," as one speaker termed them, were delivered to school leaders from more than 40 states who were meeting to learn the latest from experts on merit pay.

The site of the conference--which was co-sponsored by a management development firm in Sarasota and by Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton--was not merely incidental, the organizers pointed out. Florida was the first state in the nation to adopt a statewide merit-pay system.

"Merit pay probably isn't good for education," concluded David Lipsky, a Cornell University scholar specializing in labor history. "There are too many flaws."

"About 10 percent of the nation's 16,000 school districts have experimented with merit pay at one time," he said. "Lots and lots of merit-pay plans failed within the first few years. Very few lasted longer than eight or nine years." Mr. Lipsky studied merit pay recently with financial support from the National Education Association.

A key to the high failure rate is the lack of a well-defined system of identifying the best teachers, argued Mr. Lipsky, who predicted the latest round of merit-pay plans, including Florida's, are "fads" that will disappear within five years.

"One of the major myths that has driven the concept of pay for performance in the public sector is the notion that it's working well in the private sector," said Edward Lawler, a University of Southern California scholar who is the founder and director of that school's Center for Effective Organization.

"Unfortunately, that is almost 100-percent false," he added. "And I see no reason merit pay will work any better in schools than in the private sector."

Eliminating antiquated personnel practices and increasing salaries for all teachers would do more to attract "the best and the brightest" individuals to the profession than installing merit pay, he and several other researchers insisted.

John Bernardin, a management professor at Florida Atlantic University, said relying on merit pay to cure the ills of public education is like "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

If educational reform is confined to merit pay for teachers, "we're all in a lot of trouble," said Mr. Bernardin, a performance-assessment specialist.

The effect may be positive, "but small at best," he added.

Susan Moore Johnson of the Harvard Graduate School of Education called merit pay "a stick disguised as a carrot."

"I don't mean this to be a message of gloom and doom, but it is actually," she said.

"Money will be lost," Ms. Johnson added. "Teachers will be disaffected. The public will be cheated. And children will pay the price."

Garfield Wilson, Florida's teacher-certification and staff-development director, defended Florida's efforts to develop an effective merit-pay strategy.

"I think we have moved closer to getting an objective performance-measurement system [for teachers] than many of these people know about,'' Mr. Wilson said.

But Pat Tornillo, president of the United Teachers of Dade County, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, disagreed.

"Merit pay will probably not improve student performance or attract and retain great teachers," Mr. Tornillo said in a brief address. And merit pay without the beef [a significant amount of money] certainly will not work."

Mr. Tornillo's union has already called for a one-year delay in Florida's merit-pay plan, which is set to begin next month.

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