Monday, March 14, 2011

The failure of merit pay

A $75 million dollar merit pay scheme that was initiated in 2007 by New York City's Mayor Bloomberg and United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has been deemed a flop by Harvard Economist Roland Fryer.

Fryer cites that the merit pay scheme likely failed because of the complexities involved with defining achievement.

Even when people are happy to artificially define achievement as "make scores rise on standardized tests", the complexities of good teaching and real learning are inescapable. Even if we were comfortable with marrying student achievement to test scores, merit pay is a failure even when held to this crappy criteria.

Because of these complexities, it simply won't do any longer to use a person's position on teacher merit pay as the litmus test for their reform credentials. Merit pay remains just as bad of an idea today as it was 100 years ago. I find it sadly ironic that "school reformers" today tend to see merit pay as a courageous move forward when really it is an instrument for solidifying the status quo, and the last thing we need is more of the same.

Roland Fryer is right that the complexities of merit pay schemes are dizzying to even those who design them. Alfie Kohn explains in his landmark article The Folly of Merit Pay:

It may be vanity or, again, myopia that persuades technicians, even after the umpteenth failure, that merit pay need only be returned to the shop for another tuneup. Perhaps some of the issues mentioned here can be addressed, but most are inherent in the very idea of paying educators on the basis of how close they've come to someone's definition of successful performance. It's time we acknowledged not only that such programs don't work, but that they can't work.
Furthermore, efforts to solve one problem often trigger new ones. Late-model merit-pay plans often include such lengthy lists of criteria and complex statistical controls that no one except their designers understand how the damn things work. 
So how should we reward teachers? We shouldn't. They're not pets. Rather, teachers should be paid well, freed from misguided mandates, treated with respect, and provided with the support they need to help their students become increasingly proficient and enthusiastic learners.  

So where do we go from here?

Ideally, we need to spend less time thinking of school reform as a "teacher problem" and more of a "system problem". The problems plaguing public education have less to do with bribing teachers to get high scores on bad tests and more to do with the system's unreasonable standards and accountability regimes.

The more time and effort we spend trying to get teachers to raise test scores, the less time we spend creating and implementing the schools our children deserve.


  1. Why can't merit pay work? Because it is based on a certain assumption of success. Merit pay schemes say, in essence, "Success, for a teacher, means earning more money." Is that true? The money, is nice, I have no question. But do teachers get up every (weekday) morning, excited about another day at school so they can boost their paycheque? No wonder teachers whose motivation is seeing the "lightbulb" go on as students discover new ideas are subtly offended by the suggestion of merit pay.

    Not being a teacher, I think about what I want my kids to get out of school. How do I define their success in school? I want them to be prepared for and have every chance of achieving success in life. I think most people would agree with that. What we don't agree on is how to define a successful life. Many people seem to believe that a high income or a large bank account (or their proxies: fast cars and big houses) are the definition of success. But I've met enough people who have money, but aren't happy, to know that money doesn't correlate with success. I measure my success in life by how happy I am. And I want my kids to be happy in school, learning how to build a happy life.

    In conversation, people seem to dismiss "happiness" as a measure of success precisely because it can't be measured. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. And for my kids' teachers to be able to support this goal, I want them to be paid well and treated fairly and with respect. When teachers are happy, our children are more likely to be happy. My kids deserve that, regardless of their test scores.

  2. As a teacher, my goal is to inspire and instill a love of lifelong learning. I know that students today need to master how to learn/teach themselves whatever it is they need to be able to know and do, whether for their daily/personal life or profession/career. The basic skills and abilities, higher-level thinking, questioning - those will be constant. Students need to learn that failure is part of success and build a tolerance/ability to persist in spite of failure/temporary setbacks. They need to develop initiative & persistence. None of these things are measured or reflected in test scores!