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Poetry and snark blogger who also has a creative side (who knew?)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Where's the Merit in Merit Pay?

In a study that I can best describe as "duh" worthy, researchers at Vanderbilt University have found that teacher bonuses are not linked to better student performance. Given the increasing prevalence of merit pay for teachers across the nation, this is surprisingly the first scientifically rigorous study of merit pay in the United States. In the Vanderbilt study, "...researchers tracked what happened in Nashville schools when math teachers in grades 5 through 8 were offered bonuses of $5,000, $10,000 and $15,000 for hitting annual test-score targets... Researchers randomly assigned half of the participants to a control group ineligible for the bonuses and the other half to an experimental group that could receive bonuses if their students reached certain benchmarks." Results showed no significant differences in annual test scores between classes taught by the teachers who were eligible for the bonuses and those who were not.

Advocates of merit pay, including President Obama, who has encouraged its use through Race to the Top Grants, believe that teachers should receive performance bonuses when their students perform above a certain level on standardized tests. I believe this is wrong for a number of reasons. First off, the assumption behind performance bonuses is that students perform poorly in school because of their teachers and that if teachers were more motivated, say, by money, they would teach their students better. I think most teachers would find this highly insulting. If someone were to choose a job for the money, it sure as heck wouldn't be teaching! To think that lack of student performance is due solely to teachers not trying hard would be laughable if it weren't so disrespectful.

Would you want your pay determined by how well someone else does?  And some third party gets to set the standard too! This is the second reason I find merit pay unreasonable. Let's try an example: You're a piano teacher. I'm your student. You're a great teacher, and I love playing the piano for you. This, however, is inconsequential. You don't get your full salary because I made five mistakes during my last recital, and the committee for Piano Perfection set the standard at 3 mistakes. I may be satisfied with my performance. You may be OK with it, but it didn't meet the standard and thus, no bonus for you. Too bad. Let's try another: You're a doctor. You have a very complicated patient with multiple medical problems who gets hospitalized. You keep him in the hospital a day longer than "standard care" in order to fully treat his many problems thoroughly.  You and the patient are both pleased with the competent care he received. Too bad! You are penalized monetarily by the insurance company because your patient didn't get well fast enough. Oh, wait, that's already happening...

Third, merit pay for test scores ignores the reality that children in some schools come to school at extreme disadvantages compared to their peers in other schools. Socioeconomic status is the largest predictor of test scores, and it is much easier to meet test expectations in a school district where children come from homes filled with nutritional food, warm clothes, lots of books, and a safe and supervised environment to learn and play than from homes without these things.  Teachers who have to deal with children's physical, social, and emotional needs on an intense level on a daily basis have less time to devote to test preparation. When their pay is tied to how well their students perform, this gives a disincentive to teachers to work with difficult student populations who probably need help the most. Perhaps the teachers of "at-risk" students should be the ones to receive bonuses without regard to test scores, as they often perform two jobs-teacher and social worker.

Lastly, as this study indicates, merit pay does not work. Leaving aside the issue of whether standardized test scores are a valid way to measure student progress (another rant altogether!), issuing bonuses to teachers for increased scores does not produce results.  Perhaps teachers would be better served by providing them with increased support and training opportunities rather than just demanding that they produce results. Perhaps paying ALL teachers a decent living wage and providing them with the supplies they need for their classrooms so that they don't have to purchase them out of their own pockets would also be a wise use of funds. Perhaps if we got the bureaucrats out of our classrooms and allowed our teachers to actually teach rather than administer standardized tests that determine their and their students' fates, some learning might actually take place in school.

5th grade standardized math test question


  1. No argument here.
    Under paid and under appreciated

  2. Committee for Piano Perfection...that shit is brilliant!

    On a serious note, I think the responsibility to make sure kids get a quality education is everyone's...even if you don't have kids. Think about it, do you want to face a kid who grew up frustrated because he couldn't read, so now he's strung out and holding you at gunpoint about to kill you for your pocket change?

    Sadly, though, some people DO get teaching jobs for the paycheck alone. I know several people who majored in subjects other than education and are now teaching. In Baltimore, it didn't matter what your B.S. degree (pun intended) was in. As long as you graduated from college, you could be a teacher. They're working toward changing that now, but think of all the damage that was done beforehand.

    I love teachers. I have the utmost respect for them. There is no amount of money you could pay me to be one. But lots of them suck, just like in any job. I think you're right, though, in saying that they shouldn't be offered incentives based on the performance of their students. I think school systems should hire quality teachers who ACTUALLY want to be teachers. Those people go into it with their eyes open and lots of patience.

    And I could be here all day ranting about the effectiveness of standardized tests, so...I'll just shut the hell up now.

  3. @ A B#$!% Called Mom: I haven't met any fellow teachers who got into teaching because of the paycheck.

    And about the whole idea of merit pay, I agree with your entire post. That being said, should there be away to differentiate the one teacher's performance from the next and link it to pay? If there should be a way and it's not linked to student performance, how should it be measured? Or maybe it should be measured by student performance, but by a more valid method than standardized test scores? Or should it just stay like it is. More college = more pay.
    Although here is National Board Certification, that offers a temporary pay raise.
    This is more of a rant than a response.


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