Saturday, January 12, 2013

Attack of the merit pay zombie

This was written by Dennis Theobald who is an executive staff officer with the Alberta Teachers' Association. This post was originally found here.

by Dennis Theobald

The single most irritating thing about zombies is that, starting off dead, they are almost impossible to kill. Likewise, some issues in education are like zombies, periodically climbing out of their graves to terrorize innocent townsfolk.

To illustrate, allow me to share with you my most recent encounter with a zombie issue. There I was in my tidy little office at Barnett House when the phone rang. Calling from Toronto was a writer with Canadian Family magazine who wanted my comment on a proposal to introduce merit pay for teachers. A zombie was abroad in the land!

What is remarkable about the merit-pay zombie is that it should emerge at this time. After all, we are in the midst of a global economic crisis precipitated by the catastrophic failure of American and British financial institutions. That failure, in turn, was the direct consequence of deliberate decisions made by managers more concerned with maximizing their performance bonuses than conscientiously stewarding the funds entrusted to them. To echo Dr. Phil’s famous question: So how’s that working for you?

It is also not the first time that this zombie has walked the earth. Pay-for-performance was first introduced in England around 1710 and became a national policy in 1862. It remained in place for 30 years. A similar policy introduced in 1876 in Ontario was abandoned in 1883. Merit-pay programs have been repeatedly introduced and abandoned in various US jurisdictions and in the United Kingdom. In every case, merit-pay schemes have been criticized and eventually abandoned because of their negative effect on teaching and learning. These schemes typically drove teachers and schools to narrow instruction, focus on marginal improvement, exclude borderline students and otherwise manipulate the system. In short, merit-pay for teachers has a consistent and sustained record of failure.

Advocates of merit pay for teachers usually claim the approach works well and is widely used in the private sector. The truth is quite different. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and a leading advocate for evidence-based management, has researched three decades of empirical studies only to conclude that the idea that individual pay for performance will enhance organizational performance rests on a set of assumptions that do not hold true in the vast majority of organizations. Testifying before the US Congress in 2007, Pfeffer stated that "the evidence is overwhelming that individual pay for performance does not improve organizational performance except in very limited cases" and cited dozens of studies showing that merit-pay programs generate higher turnover, lower quality and a vast array of unintended results, including serious ethical breaches and business-killing behaviours. The truth of his conclusions has been amply demonstrated by recent events.

So merit pay doesn’t work in education and it doesn’t work in business—it should be a dead issue, right? You just go on believing that, but you might just want to keep your doors and windows bolted shut and sleep with one eye open. Merit pay is still out there and it wants to eat your brain.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post. We gave a presentation last november where we referred to the oncoming zombie apocalypse and then threw up a map of commoncore/parcc schools :)- rousing applause!


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