Studying Merit Pay

Pyrrhic Victories and Methodological Complaints

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To the Editor:

The findings of the study about merit pay by the newly created National Center on Performance Incentives that are scheduled for release in 2011 will be predictable ("New Center Asks: Does Merit Pay Work?" March 21, 2007). Unless Campbell’s law (named for the social scientist Donald T. Campbell) has been secretly repealed, the more any influential quantitative indicator is used for decisionmaking, the more it will be subject to corruption and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor.

Campbell’s law was quite evident in previous attempts to establish pay-for-performance plans in this country. In 1969, for example, Texarkana, Ark., attempted to boost reading and math scores for some 300 high school and junior high school students. Under a program called “performance contracting,” the district gave the federal government an offer it couldn’t refuse. It promised to return funds for students who failed to pass tests at a stipulated level. Dramatic gains, however, turned out to be based on cheating, and the program was declared a failure.

Campbell’s law has also left its unmistakable mark in the scandals involving the high-stakes tests used under the No Child Left Behind Act to measure student achievement. With so much on the line, the pressure to cheat has been hard to resist. The unintended consequences of the use of a single measure to make heavy-duty decisions have been widely reported by the media. As more Draconian measures kick in, the urge by teachers and administrators to engage in unethical practices will only intensify.

In his 2005 book Education Myths, Jay P. Greene asserts that education is not immune to the incentives that shape human behavior in every other policy area. That’s why he aggressively maintains that merit pay will work. What he doesn’t understand, however, is that if it does, it will be a Pyrrhic victory.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles, Calif.

To the Editor:

I’ve read Education Week regularly for many years; it’s one way to get at least a snapshot picture of education news and issues across the United States.

But your stories are often quite superficial in the level of detail and trivial in focus, reporting more about the who, when, where, and speculative whys, and less about the what. A case in point is “New Center Asks: Does Merit Pay Work?,” the recent story reporting on the new Vanderbilt University center researching the issue of performance-pay effects with a $10 million federal grant—big, big stuff.

Despite the apparent significance of this issue, the funding of the center, the controversy, and the reported concerns about the effectiveness of previous research in this area, there’s very little relevant professional information about the study’s methodology. As a professional in education engaged in developing professional educators, I’d like to read news that clearly addresses such issues.

The real issue with this initiative, post-No Child Left Behind oversight, is the methodological procedure being used; the union information is the working context, not the story.

Edward Caropreso
Associate Professor
Watson School of Education
University of North Carolina at Wilmington
Wilmington, N.C.

Vol. 26, Issue 31, Page 30

Published in Print: April 4, 2007, as Studying Merit Pay
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