Why Do We Need Research On Merit Pay?

A new Roland Fryer study on loss aversion and merit pay has been creating quite a stir. Essentially, the study found that when teachers are given a sum of money but told they will be asked to give it back if their students don’t hit certain benchmarks, student achievement rises. The study managed to give Diane Ravitch a conniption and induce a scathing anti-science rant (her second of the season!)

The thing I’ve never understood is why merit pay proponents are so desperate to link it to short-term test score gains. Obviously the type of evaluation is key, but haven’t the last 100 years of business and government management demonstrated that in the long-run when the best employees get paid more money institutions tend to be healthier, more stable, and capable of attracting and keeping higher quality people? Why is paying more money to people who get better results something that needs research? Is it not an accepted best-practice? Would not paying for performance fly in any other business, non-profit, or government? (Warning: This post might break my rhetorical question record.)

The bulk of the arguments against merit pay tend be absurd conceptual leaps that begin with research on motivation and make heavy use of the fact that teachers are “different” from anybody who’s ever held a job throughout the course of human history. Here’s an idea. If paying the best teachers more is a bad idea, why don’t we pay the worst teachers more? What’s that? You say it’s unwise to reward bad teachers? Here’s the thing. Logically speaking, rewarding a bad teacher by paying them more than a good teacher isn’t that different from rewarding a bad teacher by paying them the same as a good teacher. Either way, You’re paying them more than you should.

The fact that there is even a debate about merit pay shows the enormous power of teacher’s unions to call into question anything that involves an objective evaluation of teacher performance. After all, if a merit pay system is allowed to identify good teachers, it follows that it will also be able to identify bad teachers, and if bad teachers can be identified, bad teachers can be fired, and if bad teachers can be fired, a below average teacher who is mistakenly identified as a bad teacher could be fired, and if a below average teacher can be fired then ?????, and if ?????, then our education system will crumble to the ground. Or something like that.

4 Responses to Why Do We Need Research On Merit Pay?

  1. EdResearch says:

    In case you hadn’t noticed, the complaint is not about merit pay, but the instruments used to measure it. While policy makers grow more and more enamoured of standardized tests, educational researchers (not economic researchers) are moving away from them. Have you seen the common core curriculum being adopted in nearly every state? It is focused on USE of knowledge, not regurgitation of it. Have you heard about the problems (not to mention costs) in school districts that have tried to develop literally HUNDREDS of new test to evaluate everything from first grade art achievment to high school PE (400 in Charlotte-Mecklinburg)? Now the parents who supported the idea are backtracking as their students lose more and more class time to testing. Even colleges have realized that as we have become a nation of test-takers, tests indicate less and less. Results of paper-and-pencil tests do not correlate with true measures of success: creative thinking, teamwork, self-motivation. That’s why so many colleges now have alternative application reviews that include portfolios, internship evaluations, and personal interviews. WAKE UP – if improving our schools (and teachers) was a simple as giving tests, we’d be done by now. You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it more often…

    • My point is that people are opposed to merit pay independent of whether there is a good system for identifying the best teachers. For example, if you allowed the teacher’s unions to create their own system of teacher evaluation, but you stipulate that teachers who were in the bottom 20% for three straights years could be fired while teachers in the top 20% for three straight years would get big bonuses, the unions would refuse that deal. Many people are still fundamentally opposed to the idea that it’s possible to say who is truly a good or bad teacher. This my complaint — it has nothing to do with whether we have the right system. The thing is, in order to find the right system we first need people to acknowledge that it’s a possibility.

  2. EdResearch says:

    Really? Would you want to work for a company that says ‘at some later date we’ll figure out what we want from you – just sign on now’? Especially a company that has such a ‘great’ track record of coming up with really good performance criteria…ever compare NCLB test results across states? The highest scores on Mississippi’s test don’t even meet ‘basic’ level in Massachusetts. Which one should be used to judge teachers?

    Let’s also not forget that many tenure rules were put into place because school systems continually changed what they wanted teachers to do based on politics, not good educational practice.

    Besides, you premise is wrong – there are a number of systems right now where teacher performance criteria are being developed WITH UNION INPUT (NY, Colorado, FL). These are the places that are on to something positive. Even teachers want to know that they are being rewarded for what they do, and that the poor performers that give the profession a bad name will be either retrained or removed. The problem is that in most places, teachers are not treated like professionals, aren’t given texts and curriculum units to teach from that match the standardized tests their state uses, aren’t given adequate classroom supplies (ask an inner city teacher how much they spend out of their own money on supplies each year), don’t have influence over all aspects of a student’s learning anyway, and yet are still held solely accountable for outcomes. It’s a wonder we have any teachers left at all…

    • I’m not really sure what your first point refers to, but in any case, clearly there are some people who believe that it’s possible to find a system for rating teachers, and I believe they’ll eventually come up with something good. That said, your last few sentences prove my point. After saying that rating systems can be developed you qualify it all by saying that teachers have to work in terrible conditions, the implication being that any teacher who underperforms can’t be blamed.

      Believe it or not, many people who aren’t teacher work under conditions they don’t find ideal and are rated on quantitative metrics that do not perfectly reflect their performance (e.g. murders solved, fires put out, charity money raised, games won.) I’m not sure exactly why it is — perhaps because they have strong representation and have gotten used to having no accountability for so long — but teachers seems to think the differences between them and everybody else are much more vast than they actually are.

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