Opinion
Teaching Profession Commentary

Is Merit Pay the Answer?

By Kim Marshall — December 15, 2009 4 min read
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To most people, it seems obvious that teachers should earn more when their students do well. If salespeople get extra pay when they sell more products, why shouldn’t teachers be rewarded for higher test scores? U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, among others, has been talking up this idea.

But it turns out that merit pay is an ineffective strategy for improving teaching and learning. Here’s why.

• It undermines teamwork. Teachers who are rewarded for their own students’ test-score gains are less likely to share ideas with their colleagues.

• The best teachers are already working incredibly long hours, and there’s no evidence that extra pay will make them work harder or smarter—or that it will motivate mediocre teachers to improve. Quite the contrary: Merit pay will steer all too many teachers toward low-level test preparation.

• Standardized tests are often “instructionally insensitive”—that is, they’re better at measuring students’ family advantages and disadvantages than the school’s or the teacher’s value-added effect.

• Standardized tests in many states don’t put enough emphasis on writing and critical thinking, so raising the stakes for teachers creates an incentive to shortchange these important life skills.

• To address the last two problems, it’s been suggested that schools should use higher-quality, before-and-after tests in September and May to measure each teacher’s contributions to student learning. Nice idea, but experts say it takes at least three years of data to produce a fair value-added measure of individual teacher effectiveness.

• Raising the stakes on tests increases the urge to cheat. Most teachers are scrupulously honest as they proctor their test-taking students, but higher stakes will result in more thumbs on the scale.

• A good many students are pulled out of regular classes for small-group help with other teachers. How could we figure out a fair way to dole out merit pay for these children’s achievement?

• Good scores in one 4th grade class (for example) would boost that teacher’s pay—but what about the 3rd grade, 2nd grade, 1st grade, kindergarten, and preschool teachers who helped those students along the way? Don’t they deserve some of the loot? If so, how would we calculate their share?

• Fully half of teachers work with grades and subjects that don’t have standardized tests—kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades, art, music, and physical education, for example. Is it fair that they aren’t eligible?

These concerns, to my way of thinking, demolish the argument for individual merit pay. And yet, Arne Duncan is absolutely right: Student learning should be at the center of the conversation within schools. So how can we accomplish this without creating knotty problems and perverse incentives?

Actually, the solution is being implemented by resourceful educators right now. In many of America’s most effective schools, principals make frequent unannounced visits to classrooms and give informal feedback on what students are learning and how instruction can be improved. Teacher teams in these schools collaboratively design curriculum units, give common assessments to their students every four to six weeks, immediately huddle to discuss what worked and what didn’t, share best practices, reteach what wasn’t mastered, and help struggling students.

By frequently checking for understanding and fixing learning problems before they snowball, these schools draw on teachers’ and administrators’ collective wisdom and keep everyone’s focus on the most important questions: Are students learning, and, if not, what’s our next move?

Small wonder that students in these schools are making dramatic gains, and achievement gaps are being closed. Small wonder that teachers in these schools are continuously improving their craft.

Getting this collaborative “engine of improvement” running is not easy. Some of the success factors are technical—24-hour turnaround of interim assessment results and clear data displays, for example—but others have to do with the level of trust among teachers and administrators. Just as important as shifting the conversation in a school to results is keeping the assessment process informal and low-stakes, so that teachers feel safe admitting when things aren’t working and will listen to ideas from colleagues. The process is similar to Total Quality Management, a successful business strategy emphasizing small adjustments during a process, rather than officious inspection at the end of the line.

Does this mean that we’re stuck with the traditional model of paying teachers based on years of service and academic credentials? Not necessarily. There are ways of tweaking this clunky model: salary increments to master teachers who mentor colleagues and serve as skilled curriculum planners, trainers, and team leaders, or offering higher pay to attract top-notch teachers to more-challenging schools and hard-to-staff subjects. In addition, we should explore the idea of rewarding entire teaching staffs for well-documented, multi-year gains in student learning.

Let’s experiment with these ideas. But more important, let’s emulate the supervision and assessment approaches of our most effective schools and steer clear of the ineffective strategy of individual merit pay. It is a distraction in our drive to improve America’s schools.

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Is Merit Pay the Secret Sauce for Improving Teaching and Learning?

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