Education Opinion

Merit Pay Is Not Merited

By Walt Gardner — March 14, 2011 2 min read
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It’s tempting for teachers to gloat when evidence does not support claims made by outsiders regarding school policies. But doing so would only exacerbate the resentment that too many taxpayers already feel about the profession.

Take the debate over merit pay for teachers. Despite what reformers maintain, teachers have long argued that it will do little, if anything, to improve student achievement. The latest evidence that teachers were right all along came from a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. It concluded that student achievement actually declined in schools participating in New York City’s $75-million teacher incentive plan that was announced in 2007.

The program, which was initially funded by private foundations and then by taxpayer dollars, also had a “negligible” effect on student attendance, graduation rates and behavioral problems. Moreover, merit pay did not influence whether teachers stayed at their schools or whether they reported greater overall job satisfaction.

The study looked at 200 high-needs schools and 20,000 teachers between the 2007-08 and 2009-10 school years. The sample is considered large enough to allow valid inferences to be drawn about merit pay. Realizing that the experiment did not produce the expected outcomes, the Bloomberg administration quietly retired it last year.

Then there was Texas. What began as a pilot program known as the Texas Educator Excellence Grant in the 2005-06 school year was subsequently expanded to a statewide program a year later by the Legislature, which earmarked $100 million for teacher bonuses tied primarily to standardized test scores at 1,150 schools. An evaluation of TEEG by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University, however, found that evidence of TEEG’s positive effect on student achievement was “inconclusive.” In May 2009, the plan was terminated.

Throughout the history of merit pay, it’s interesting to note the reluctance of advocates of such plans to comment once the evidence is finally available. In Education Myths (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), Jay P. Greene calls the belief that “education is somehow protected from incentives that shape human behavior in every other area” a “meta-myth.” He goes on to claim: “Any honest person would have to admit that at least sometimes - at some point, in some situations - the absence of financial incentives would make a difference.”

Greene is not alone. Corporate CEOs agree with him because that’s how business works. But the evidence flatly contradicts their assertions about teachers. Nevertheless, I seriously doubt that they will pay more attention to what classroom practioners say. Outsiders have the luxury to pontificate without having to examine the consequences.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.