Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Teacher Merit Pay Is A Bad Idea

Florida's governor is planning to boost the state bonus program for teachers, even as Denver teachers walked off the job over their district's version of an incentive program. So it's worth taking a moment to step back and remember why teacher merit pay and bonus systems are just a bad idea.
First, they can't work like a private sector bonus system. In the business world, bonuses and incentives are based on a clear idea of success. Whether the definition of success at Widgetcorps this year is "We made a bunch more money" or "We increased the value of Widgetcorps stock this year" or even "We managed to strip a pile of dollars out of Widgetcorps this year," the end result is a pile of "extra" money (the end result, depending on the definition of success, may be a less healthy company, but let's set that aside for now). The bonus deal between Widgetcorps and its bonus-eligible employees is simple--if there's a pile of extra money here at the end of the year, you get to have some of it.
Public schools, on the other hand, don't make money, and school district success is hugely hard to define. More high school graduates? The football team won a championship? The school musical was really good this year? More students really got into Shakespeare? Larger number of students earned welding certification? The school's culture and atmosphere was so healthy that students really love attending? All of these might count as success, but none of them result in a school district ending the year with "extra" money to be split up for bonuses.
Instead, the pile of bonus money has to be pre-budgeted, and then teachers get to compete with each other for a share of a fixed pie. This may not establish the kind of in-house atmosphere you want for your school ("No, colleague, you may not see my materials for how I teach fractions--my child needs braces this year!") We already know this is bad news; this kind of internal competition is arguably part of what destroyed Sears.
"But, see, I think teachers should be paid more, but only the good ones. So I want merit pay so that we only have to give good teachers raises." This is an understandable impulse. The problem is that we have no universal agreement on who the great ones are or how to reliably measure their greatness. Settling that issue would involve a long and complicated discussion that we still haven't had. Instead, policy makers mostly just said, "Use scores from the Big Standardized Test."
Again, we could have a long conversation about the merits and demerits of this approach, but to understand how basing "merit" on standardized test scores affects teacher behavior, all we have to grasp is this-- from a teacher standpoint, judging teacher merit based on test scores is only slightly more reliable that having a horned toad toss dice under a full moon. Basing merit pay on test results divides the teaching staff into two groups who will hear two different messages. The non-English, non-math teachers hear, "You have no control over whether you get merit pay or not." This is not hyperbole; in many regions, teachers have been judged by the test results in subjects they don't teach from students they've never met. English and math teachers also hear the message, "You will be judged on how well you teach to the test." Merit pay based on test scores does not incentivize better teaching.
"Well, what if I want to use bonuses to push teachers in directions that help the district, such a teaching at hard to staff schools?" That was a big part of the goal for Denver, and it hasn't worked. Again, teachers feel at the mercy of forces outside their control (one batch of teachers lost their incentive pay for teaching in a high-poverty neighborhood when new luxury townhouses were built nearby). And a one-time pay incentive does not outweigh a bad boss or building culture.
A teacher bonus system is prone to other problems. To fund that pile of bonus money, districts often lower base pay for teachers. This is not just bad financial news if the horned toad who's tossing dice for your bonus comes up snake eyes; the base pay is what determines your pension, and what you write on applications for loans and mortgages.
And at its heart, a merit pay system is insulting. It imagines a world of teachers who sit at their desk thinking, "I have the perfect lesson for effectively teaching pronouns right over there in my filing cabinet--but I'm not going to get it out until someone offers me a bonus."
Here is a thing actual teachers have all said, more or less, at one time or another: "Today was awesome. I was on fire. The kids were right here, taking it all in. I could see lights going on all over the room as they got what we were doing. I taught the crap out of that unit. I am ready to get back in there tomorrow."
Actual teachers have also said, more or less, this: "Today was a thousand hours long. They wouldn't focus. They wouldn't stop hollering at each other. I couldn't find my rhythm. I sucked. It was awful. If I thought this was what it was always going to be, I'd think hard about quitting."
Here's what no actual teachers have ever said in any way, shape, or form. "Today was awful and excruciating. I was terrible. The lesson was awful. Mind you, I could have had a great day. I could have been awesome in there instead of suffering endlessly, but I won't do it unless someone offers me a bonus."
I would not go so far as to say that teaching well is its own reward, because teachers need food and shelter, too. But teaching badly is definitely its own punishment. No merit pay system--particularly not one based on small rewards for student test scores--is likely to exert more power over teachers than the immediate results in the classroom.
Merit pay for teachers has been tried many times over the last several decades. It never works. It doesn't raise test scores, or improve teacher attraction and retention. It doesn't improve morale. A district can garner better results by spending the money to raise base wages, or to decrease class sizes and provide other supports for classroom teachers.
Originally posted at Forbes.


  1. Please, kindly but misguided philanthropists - PLEASE read this and embrace its truth.

  2. Deciding who is worthy of a merit pay raise would turn schools into political brown nosing centers and has no place in one of the helping professions. However I am all for demerit pay decreases for administrators who hire and tenure or fail to remove/counsel out the truly incompetent and harmful teachers that we all know exist; albeit in very, very small numbers.

  3. The so-called merit systems are not always a great idea in the private sector either. A successful organization have members who share in at least some of the common purposes for that organization.

    Walk into a retail business where the compensation for sales staff & management is very heavily dependent on commission. Those people are primarily competing with others within their
    business and not with the Other Store. There is more of an incentive for self over service.

    So Ann S & Fizzicks both teach physics, both National Boarders who have written & developed a lot of classroom materials and we freely share ideas at lunch time & those "training" in-services presented by a district drone or textbook shill who are incapable of teaching a 1st grader how to pick his own nose.

    Now let's say Ann & Fizzicks are competing for that $5K merit bonus. If I were completely driven by the capitalist idea that my motivations were primarily monetary (and there have been years where that's where I would have had to be the case because of my daughters medical bills) I don't want Ann's students to succeed. I'm not sharing, helping her or giving any of her students the time of day!

    Fizzicks isn't competing with Heathwood Hall, Hammond Academy, Heritage School or Spring Valley. He is competing with other people within the organization (school).

    And if Ann wins the bonus in a honest, but unfair competition? Fizzicks is going to act like the good sport and offer congrats. But then he'll go home and privately tell his wife that his supervisors can go f themselves and he'll go teach elsewhere.

  4. I just had to comment on this one. Your entry, an editorial in a Dallas paper, and the labor dispute in Denver all relate. Denver had a bond issue funded merit pay schedule that was destroyed by Michael Bennett, the now senator from Colorado. In my negotiating days, my union faced several merit pay proposals, but the most afr out was a TBO proposal. (Teaching by Objectives.) In it, teachers would volunteer to compete for bonuses. If they volunteered, they would meet with their principal, set a series of objectives at the start of the year, then meet again at the end to decide to what degree they had met these objectives, then receive a bonus based on their success. We, of course, were not especially interested in any merit pay proposal. especially a bonus concept. But being the polite people we were, we asked a few questions. The first was how many teachers could volunteer? The answer--a limited number. How much would the bonuses pay? The answer--to be decided at the end of the year. How much new money has been set aside? (New money meant in addition to the regular schedule. ) The answer--we won't know until we see how the budget works out. So in the end, teachers would volunteer, go through the process, and receive an unknown bonus at the end of the year, if any. Well, that did not go far. But the administrator tried forced the idea on school principals and found that no one volunteered. Now, this administrator was a decent guy and we were kind of friendly, so he asked me what to do. I said it was easy--just offer them money up front, for instance, $500 for the most important objective fulfilled, $400 for the next, etc. He said, We can't do that. It would be too expensive if too many volunteered. The board did try it for a year or so with principals, but the idea proved so unpopular that it was soon dropped. However, the administrator got his PHD(his thesis on TBOs), which was the purpose of the whole thing.