Thursday, April 7, 2011

Distracting Everyone With Myths That Distract Policymakers: Part VI

Myth number five is a personal favorite of mine. It states that “merit pay will motivate teachers to teach more effectively” and the refutation is, obviously, that it won’t. Research shows that pay for performance in the absence of anything else doesn’t work in any field. And that is why this is the ultimate red herring. Merit pay isn’t about improving current teachers. It is about recruitment and retention. I don’t even know how much merit pay proponents think of it in this manner because it seems like nobody ever talks about recruitment and retention when they talk about merit pay.

Merit pay is good for recruitment and retention on multiple levels. Obviously, merit pay means more potential earnings which is a great way to recruit potential teachers. After all money was the deciding factor for a lot of future financial wizards before they tanked the economy. Now, it is true, nobody wants to recruit teachers who are only in it for the money. I doubt many would be so swayed, rather I think recruitment would improve dramatically among those potential teachers who choose other professions because of money. By introducing merit pay money can cease to be the deciding factor for those who do not choose teaching because of money.

It isn’t just more money though. It is what that money signals. By having merit pay we signal that we value merit, success, effectiveness. The current standard pay structures don’t signal a meritocracy at all. The signal is that staying power, experience and willingness to attain credentials of questionable value are valued more than anything else. Yes, experience and staying power are valuable, but more valuable than being an effective teacher? I, for one, would rather enter a profession where I am rewarded for good work, not just for showing up for a long time, where I am forever stuck being compensated less than those who came before me no matter how hard I work or how effective I am.

The signaling effect and the money effect don’t just apply to recruitment but also retention. Teachers don’t exist in a vacuum. They have diverse interests and skills and have diverse options for how they wish to spend their lives and earn their living. Imagine being a successful teacher, who is also really good at other things too. Most urban teachers face stresses unimaginable by most people every day. It isn’t easy and it grinds you down, day after day, month after month, year after year. Ask anyone. Yes it is also rewarding but most of the time it is also quite thankless. Now if leaving the profession after three or five or ten years to enter a new job that is a little less stressful and compensates you a little better is an option, can you blame someone for taking that option? But if the person is a great teacher might a little extra money change the decision making process a little bit by taking money considerations off the table? Maybe the stresses remain too high but maybe not. Maybe by making the decision entirely about how they want to spend their lives and not about how they need to make a living would let more teachers remain in the profession if they are good teachers.

Same goes for signaling value. Everyone thinks they are underpaid and undervalued. It is the nature of jobs and life. But at least if you work really hard and do a really good job there is a reasonable expectation that at some point you will be rewarded for that in most jobs. Whether that reward comes through a raise or a promotion or just some recognition depends on the person and the job. But it is nice to be recognized. It is nice to be valued. A raise doesn’t just say good job. It also says we value you, we want you here, we see what you are doing and it is special. And not allowing for that signals that you are just like everyone else, you are not special, we do not see you. And it must hurt morale for some teachers who are amazing, who work insanely hard, who push their kids to new heights have to wait fifteen years to be compensated at the same level as the teacher down the hall who isn’t putting in the work they are or to be compensated the same as the teacher across the hall who thinks teaching is yelling and can’t wait for summer break. In such situations, where it is hard to differentiate between the best, the worst and the middle, where there is no reward for being anything other than average, it isn’t hard to see many of the brightest regressing to the mean a little bit because why kill yourself for someone who can’t even go to bat for you?

So yes, merit pay won’t make your teachers better. Money isn’t that type of motivator. But over time it should improve the caliber of your teacher corps. And that should raise student achievement.


  1. i am a supporter of merit pay in theory. by "in theory," i mean that the important part is how it's implemented. for example, how will "merit" be measured. are we going to measure it by test scores like most people in the mainstream seem to be proposing. that is NCLB-type nonsense. if we come up with better measures of "merit," then i'm all on board. but until we come up with that better measurement, i'll fight the current proposals for merit pay tooth and nail

  2. However, where are we when merit pay becomes capricious pay?

    If you could do no wrong and get a pay cut, because of 'merit', that's also a demotivational in recruiting.