Totally Missing the Point
by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
In a recent article in the Washington Post, Nick Anderson reported on a study that indicated merit pay for teachers did not result in better student test scores. One of the conclusions presented by Mr. Anderson was:
“Offering teachers incentives of up to $15,000 to improve student test scores produced no discernible difference in academic performance, according to a study released Tuesday, a result likely to reshape the debate about merit pay programs sprouting in D.C. schools and many others nationwide.”
These results, the first major study of the link between bonuses and improving student test scores, brought reactions ranging from disbelief to disillusionment. According to Vanderbilt Education Professor Matthew Springer who led the study "Pay reform is often thought to be a magic bullet. That doesn't appear to be the case here. We need to develop more thoughtful and comprehensive ways of thinking about compensation. But at the same time, we're not even sure whether incentive pay is an effective strategy for improving the system itself.”
As someone who was awarded multiple merit pay bonuses over the course of my career I can answer Dr. Springer’s concern—money will not provide an immediate boost to student test scores.
It may buy happiness but not better teaching
Let me be very clear about my position on merit pay—I think it is a critical and essential part of any successful educational program. What I do not accept is the belief that such extra funds will make a teacher better. The amount of effort and skill excellent teachers bring to their classroom is never predicated on the amount of money in their paychecks. Teachers are a unique breed. For the best of them merit pay is good; recognition by their colleagues as “skillful” is better; but a “thank you” correspondence from a former student is priceless. For great educators no student is viewed in terms of dollar signs. Every student is an individual with a name and a story. Success is measured by making a difference in a life, not in a bank account.
Confessions of a merit pay teacher
When my district created a program for teachers to earn merit pay I immediately applied for it. As I saw it, there was virtually no downside. I was more than willing to fill out the necessary paperwork. Without hesitation I compiled the required list of “goals and objectives”. The majority of the time the required “itinerary” of the day’s lesson was dutifully posted even if it was often not completely accurate and had certainly never been a part of my previous classroom procedures. And when it was time for a pre-arranged observation I always suggested a topic I knew would actively engage my students. Yes, the lure of several thousand dollars would inspire me to add a few pieces of window dressing to my teaching. But here is what did not change—the lesson that was observed during my second period Algebra 2 class was taught with exactly the same intensity, content and techniques in the unobserved fourth period Algebra 2 class an hour later. That lesson was the same the year before there was merit pay and would continue to be unchanged in the future. Why? Because like every professional teacher I did not possess skills, techniques or special tricks that I was holding back until there was more money on the table. The sad fact is that the people who think extra pay will make the best teachers perform better simply do not understand or appreciate the qualities that define those teachers.
Not today but definitely tomorrow
While I do not believe extra money equates into better teaching, I do believe it will result in a better teaching staff. One of the greatest frustrations in education is the system which determines pay exclusively by years of service and educational level. The lack of any component that measures the actual performance of the individual is one of the biggest morale killers in the profession. An effective merit pay system based on the intelligent use of student test scores among other factors is an excellent method of eliminating this problem. To build the best staff possible these are the educators who need to be retained by school districts. There is little doubt that a teacher who is recognized both with status and money is far more likely to stay in the profession. Likewise, those who are not given such rewards are more likely to depart. Over time, these two dynamics—retaining the best, removing the worst— will result in vastly improved teaching staffs. Given enough time, those positive changes will ultimately bring the improvement to education envisioned by the supporters of merit pay. And of course, the primary beneficiaries of these changes will be the students.