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October 04, 2010 3 min read
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Merit Pay Fails Another Test

One of the signature issues of businesspeople and conservative Republicans for the past 30 years has been merit pay. They believe in competition, and they believe that financial rewards can be used to incentivize better performance, so it seems natural for them to conclude that merit pay or performance pay would incentivize teachers to produce better results.

Few people realize that merit-pay schemes have been tried again and again since the 1920s. Belief in them waxes and wanes, but the results have never been robust.

Now we have the findings of the most thorough trial of teacher merit pay, conducted by first-rate economists at the National Center for Performance Incentives. After a three-year trial, the researchers concluded that the teachers in the treatment group did not get better results than those in the control group, who were not in line to get a bonus.

Bottom line: Merit pay made no difference. Teachers were working as hard as they knew how, whether for a bonus or not.

The very next day after the release of the Nashville study, the U.S. Department of Education handed out many millions of dollars for merit-pay programs across the country and announced its intention to spend $1.2 billion on merit pay. The enduring puzzle is why the Obama administration clings so fiercely to the GOP philosophy of incentives and sanctions as the levers for change, despite lack of evidence for their efficacy. —Diane Ravitch


N.J. Governor Pushes Education Overhaul

Arguing that his state is spending too much money on schools and getting too few results, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vowed last week to push for major changes in education, including proposals to judge teachers by student achievement.

The Republican governor is “challenging the system,” his staff said, though it appears that a number of his agenda items will need the backing of state lawmakers to become reality.

Christie campaigned for office last year on promises to expand charter schools and increase school choice. He has voiced support for merit pay, and he said last week that he wants to “reward innovative and effective teaching,” and to “put student achievement at the center of educator evaluations.” Teachers should be judged on their classroom work—not seniority, he said.

Those ideas may not get a winning reception from the New Jersey Education Association. The union questioned whether the governor was “grandstanding,” and it cast doubts on whether research supports merit pay. —Sean Cavanagh


Constructive Advice For “Superman” Fans

I’ve had some fun expressing my concerns about the cult of “Waiting For ‘Superman.’” Heaven knows I’m skeptical about claims that the movie is going to have an outsized impact on school reform. And I’m borderline nauseated from constant urgings to praise and promote the flick.

All that aside, though, I think it’s a fine movie, a useful contribution, and could do some good—if the short-term bump in energy and enthusiasm are channeled well. The key is to use its energy in a constructive way before education is once again relegated to back-burner status by Oprah, Katie Couric, and Entertainment Weekly.

If I were advising those trying to leverage the potential impact of “Superman,” what would I suggest?

First, focus on the concrete and actionable, not the broad and vague. Second, take a page out of General Colin Powell’s manual and focus on the doctrine of “overwhelming force” to pressure key decisionmakers for discrete wins. Third, focus on wins that will last. Fourth, strike while the iron is hot. For those of us who still expect to be pushing to rethink teacher pay, create room for stellar charter schools, and fuel uncompromising reformers, the question is what we can do to use this bump to help that effort. —Rick Hess

A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Blogs of the Week


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