What’s Wrong with Merit Pay?

Friday, October 9, 2009
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The subject today is merit pay, an important topic because President Obama has decided to hang his hat on this idea. It has not yet been explained, however, just what he means by merit pay. Does he mean that teachers should be paid more for teaching in what are euphemistically called “hard to staff ” schools? Paid more for teaching in areas where there are shortages, such as certain kinds of special education or subjects such as math and science? Or paid more for mentoring other teachers or teaching longer days?

I would call such compensation “performance pay,” rather than merit pay, because teachers would be paid more for doing more. But I have a feeling that what the Obama administration has in mind is paying teachers more based on their students’ “value-added” test scores, meaning that when their students’ scores increase, the teachers will get “merit pay” to reward their supposedly superior teaching.

I believe that this is the direction in which the administration is heading, which explains why millions of dollars will be spent on data warehouses in every state and why Education Secretary Arne Duncan has told the governors that they will get their stimulus money only if they collect and report data to the federal government. This was an odd request in that some of the information he asked for is already available, such as the gap between state and National Assessment of Educational Progress scores (data previously published and no secret).

There are several reasons why it is a bad idea to pay teachers extra for raising student test scores. Doing so would

  • Create incentives for teachers to teach only what is on the tests of reading and math, thus narrowing the curriculum to only the subjects tested;

  • Encourage not only teaching to the test but gaming the system by such mechanisms as excluding low-performing students and outright cheating;

  • Ignore a wealth of studies showing that student test scores are subject to statistical errors, measurement errors, and random errors and that the “noise” in these scores is multiplied when used to make high-stakes personnel decisions;

  • Overlook the fact that most teachers in a school are not eligible for such “merit” bonuses—only those who teach reading and math and only those for whom scores can be obtained in a previous year;

  • Fail to acknowledge that many factors play a role in student test scores, including student ability, student motivation, family support (or lack thereof ), the weather, distractions on testing day, and so on;

  • Not reckon with the fact that tests must be given at the beginning and the end of the year, not midyear as is now the practice in many states. (Which teacher would get credit and a bonus for score gains: the one who taught the student in the spring of the previous year or the one who taught her in the fall?)

I believe that merit pay of the stupidest kind is coming and that it will do nothing to improve our schools. The Manhattan Institute recently released a study showing that merit pay had no impact on test scores in 200 New York City schools that had tried it. In fact, scores went down in larger schools that offered bonuses. (It is possible that scores may go up in later years; this is only the first year, after all.) But this little experiment in schoolwide bonuses is costing taxpayers $20 million a year.

The way in which this study was released is highly interesting. Usually when the Manhattan Institute releases a study, it holds a press conference to announce the results. This study, however, arrived with no fanfare; its results were quietly posted on the web with no press conference, no press release. I suspect that had the scores flown upward, the study would have been released with all the bells and whistles.

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My prediction is that merit pay of the kind I have described will not make education better, even if scores go up next year or the year after. Instead, it will make education worse, not only because some of the purported gains will be based on cheating and gaming the system but because they will have been obtained by paying scant attention to history, geography, civics, the arts, science, literature, foreign languages, and all the other subjects needed to develop smarter individuals, better citizens, and people who are prepared for the knowledge-based economy of the twenty-first century. Nor will it identify better teachers. Instead, it will reward those who use their time for low-level test preparation.

Is it possible to have an educational system that miseducates students while raising their test scores? I think so—and we may soon prove it.