Why Merit Pay Won’t Work

The subject today is merit pay. This is an important topic because it has become clear that President Obama has decided to hang his hat on this idea.

It has not yet been explained just what he means by merit pay. Does he mean that teachers should be paid more for teaching in what is euphemistically called “hard-to-staff” schools? Or paid more for teaching in areas where there are shortages, like certain kinds of special education or subjects such as math and science? Or paid more for mentoring other teachers? Or paid more for teaching longer days?

I would call such compensation “performance pay,” rather than “merit pay,” because teachers are 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. So if their students see increases in their scores, they will get “merit pay” to reward their supposedly superior teaching.

There are several reasons why it is a bad idea to pay teachers extra for raising student test scores:

First, it will create an incentive for teachers to teach only what is on the tests of reading and math. This will narrow the curriculum to only the subjects tested.

Second, it will encourage not only teaching to the test, but gaming the system (by such mechanisms as excluding low-performing students) and outright cheating.

Third, it ignores a wealth of studies that show 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.

Fourth, it ignores the fact that most teachers in a school are not eligible for “merit” bonuses, only those who teach reading and math and only those for whom scores can be obtained in a previous year.

It ignores the fact 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, etc.

It ignores the fact that tests must be given at the beginning and the end of the year, not mid-year as is now the practice in many states. Otherwise, which teacher gets “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?

Here is my prediction: 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 “gains” will be based on cheating and gaming the system, but because they will be obtained by scanting attention to history, geography, civics, the arts, science, literature, foreign languages, and all the other studies that are needed to develop smarter individuals, better citizens, and people who are prepared for the knowledge-based economy of the 21st 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 education system that mis-educates students while raising their test scores? Yes, I think it is. We may soon prove it.

Diane Ravitch

For the full article, follow this link to Bridging Differences blog, 21 April 2009

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