Bonus Systems Are Flawed Merit Pay

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To the Editor:

The Vanderbilt University research you describe on the Nashville experience with pay incentives ("Merit Pay Found to Have Little Effect on Achievement," Sept. 21, 2010) exposes the flaws of merit pay designed as a system of bonuses. This narrow approach is based on the flawed (and insulting) belief that teachers know what to do to improve instruction, but have been withholding their expertise, waiting for additional pay.

We have always believed that the true value of merit pay is long-term and should be implemented as part of a career-ladder system that differentiates pay while providing teachers with new leadership opportunities. By offering substantially higher salaries and prestige to teachers whose students’ annual academic growth consistently outperforms expectations, we would slowly attract more of our best and brightest college graduates into the profession.

But to raise the quality of instruction and the level of student achievement now, we need to introduce two additional reforms.

The first uses the same growth metric that identifies high-performing teachers to identify the lowest performers, those whose ineffective instruction harms children. Once it is determined (using multiple measures) that these individuals are not providing their students with adequate instruction, they undergo remediation. If they fail to improve, despite the provision of time and resources, they can be dismissed in a timely fashion through a system of peer assistance and review that ensures due process.

Empirical research will ultimately reveal the outcome, but urban districts may see greater gains in student learning from mandated remediation than from a bonus-pay system. We suspect that it may prove easier to move ineffective instruction to an acceptable level than to raise instruction from the effective to the highly effective level. In short, the incentives have to be negative as well as positive to succeed.

The second reform is expanded professional development that provides mentors and coaches to help teachers use the new growth metric to improve instruction and integrate data from formative and summative assessments to engage students in their own learning process. With a career ladder providing incentive to master this new knowledge, these new supports will help teachers improve the quality of their instruction and make their daily experience more stimulating and intellectually satisfying as they spend more time with peers engaged in the analysis of their shared craft.

We describe these reforms in detail in our 2009 book, A Grand Bargain for Education Reform: New Rewards and Supports for New Accountability. Educators and policymakers must not let the experiment with bonus-based merit pay deter schools from undertaking genuinely systemic reforms.

Theodore Hershberg
Director and Professor of Public Policy

Claire Robertson-Kraft
Associate Director
Operation Public Education
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pa.

Vol. 30, Issue 07, Page 26

Published in Print: October 13, 2010, as Bonus Systems Are Flawed Merit Pay
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