Meeting District Needs Opinion

Does Merit Pay Make Sense?

By Diane Ravitch — October 20, 2009 3 min read

Dear Deborah,

It is a good idea to explore the separate elements of the federal education agenda, one by one. Merit pay, the first issue you raise, now stands high among the priorities of the Obama administration as it did for the Bush administration and as it has for the Republican Party and business leaders for many years.

The idea that teachers should be evaluated in large part by the test scores of their students has achieved a remarkable currency in the past year, because President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan have championed it. You worry that merit pay might be unfairly applied and that it would disrupt the collegial nature of schoolwork. You also worry that if teachers get a bonus when scores go up, students will see that their teachers are motivated by money, not the intrinsic satisfaction associated with professional success. And, as you point out, there is precious little evidence (you say NO evidence) that merit pay leads to better schools.

As most now define it, merit pay rewards teachers whose students get higher scores on state tests. Such teachers are likely to require their students to practice for days, weeks, even months for the all-important state tests. Such activities are likely to be repetitive, uncreative, and uninspiring. As Daniel Koretz wrote in his recent book, Measuring Up, this intensive test prep regime may produce higher scores by teaching students the format of the state test, even teaching them very similar questions; however, the students may be unable to perform as well on a different test of the same subject. Such activities, Koretz says, tend to corrupt the measure and reduce its validity.

When I was researching merit pay, I discovered that David K. Cohen and Richard J. Murnane wrote an article in The Public Interest in 1985 called “The Merits of Merit Pay.” They pointed out that many urban districts adopted some sort of merit pay in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, times of Republican ascendancy in Washington when educators were trying to adapt business methods to the work of the schools. The idea tended to wane because “schools found it difficult to devise defensible criteria of meritorious teaching.” Since consensus was lacking on what constituted good teaching and how to measure it, there was no agreement on how to create a sustainable program.

Back in those olden times, schools lacked the computerized data banks that now make it possible to link the test scores of individual students to their teachers. So our technology has reduced “good teaching” to test score gains.

If our sole concern is to see higher scores, then we might be able to induce teachers to produce them if the rewards are big enough. But will our schools be better? Will our students be better prepared as citizens? Will they have greater interest in science and the arts? Will they have the motivation to learn and explore and create without the whip of a test over their heads? Will they be educated to think for themselves or to produce programmed responses?

My guess is that we will see quite a lot of experimentation with compensation plans. The most successful are likely to pay teachers more for doing more—running after-school programs, mentoring young teachers, performing valuable services in the school—not just for getting higher scores. Some test-score information is bound to be part of the equation; but (in my view) it should not be the dominant part.

I do not see merit pay as a cure-all or even as a significant reform. It may be a distraction from the serious issues that confront our students and our schools. Like you, I, too, am fearful of the heavy-handed application of technology and accountability. I, too, worry that the new technocrats will squeeze the life out of teaching and learning. If this is what our nation is buying for nearly $5 billion in stimulus funding, I want my money back.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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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