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Merit Pay: A Tool for Teaching

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Merit Pay: A Tool for Teaching

April 24, 2006

Merit pay is coming to education. Teachers at Meadowcliff and Wakefield Elementary schools in Little Rock have embraced a bonus system based on student learning gains. Eight more schools around the state participate in the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), which determines pay raises partially on test-score gains and peer assessments.

But earlier this year teachers in Little Rock voted down a proposed merit pay pilot program for 50 elementary school teachers district-wide. This vote occurred after an energetic campaign by union leaders against the proposal. Unfortunately, that campaign was based on a large amount of misinformation about the characteristics and likely effects of merit pay.

They claimed: Merit pay rewards teachers with advantaged students and punishes teachers with disadvantaged students.

By basing teacher bonuses on gains in student learning instead of the level of student achievement, teachers should not be penalized for having more challenging students. These programs attempt to isolate the difference teachers and schools make by focusing on changes in student test scores. Wherever students start, teachers would be rewarded for helping students make progress.

They claimed: Merit pay just produces teaching to the test.

Teaching to the test isn’t necessarily bad if the test requires that students read, add, and otherwise demonstrate skills that help one succeed in life. It might be better than the alternative of not teaching much at all. In addition, to prevent manipulation of one measure of student achievement to obtain bonuses, multiple measures could be used. TAP does this by using peer assessments as well as test scores. Elsewhere students take multiple tests so that their results could be checked for consistency to ensure that results aren’t being manipulated.

They claimed: Merit pay creates competition among teachers, undermining their ability to work effectively as a team.

In none of the merit pay programs operating or proposed in Arkansas would this competition be created because none of them “grade on a curve.” That is, the size of one teacher’s bonus has no effect on the bonus for any other teacher. This should make teachers more inclined to work together so they can all maximize their bonuses.

They claimed: Merit pay hurts teachers of subjects other than math and reading.

First, no one is “hurt” by bonus programs. The worst thing that happens is that teachers don’t get more than they already have. Second, we could develop plans that include all teachers. The programs in Meadowcliff and Wakefield offer bonuses to all staff. In Florida, a plan is being implemented statewide that would offer a $5,000 bonus to the top 10 percent of teachers in every category of instruction, including art, music, special education. Fourth, we might recognize that some subjects have priority over others. If we can’t offer bonuses for all subjects, we can at least reward excellence in some key areas.

They claimed: Teachers aren’t motivated by money.

Of course teachers aren’t motivated solely by money. In almost every profession, including teaching, people are engaged in work that they believe is important and that they intrinsically care about. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t all do better when we are recognized and rewarded for doing that important job well.

At the heart of the debate is whether education is fundamentally different from other professions. Lawyers, doctors, and even university professors, aren’t simply paid based on years of experience and the credential they hold, as teachers are. These professionals all operate under merit pay systems of various types that recognize and reward excellence while punishing sloth. And however imperfectly these merit pay compensation systems truly identify merit, we have good reason to believe that they motivate people to perform better.

We also have good reason to believe that the same would help motivate teachers to improve their performance.

We have already started trying merit pay in education. The real question is whether we will try it with rigorous research so that we can learn about how best to design it or whether we will simply move forward on a piecemeal basis. Jay P. Greene is the endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.