The Truth About Teacher Merit Pay Plans

As I explained more than once, I’m a firm believer that the way we pay teachers has got to change.  Our “give ‘em the same paycheck no matter who they are or where they are working” approach is simply ridiculous. 

But please understand that my support for changing the way we pay teachers doesn’t mean that I’m in favor of the ridiculously simple “pay ‘em for test scores” plans that Bam, Arne, Bill and Michelle believe in.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that teacher merit pay plans built around standardized test results are the WORST #edpolicies that we’ve seen in my 18 years of teaching—and that includes anything that Curious George dreamed up between starting wars and clinking scotch glasses at Haliburton shindigs.

Here’s why:

Less than 50% of teachers are working in tested subjects. 

I’m constantly amazed by merit pay plans built around standardized test scores simply because so few educators are working in tested subjects.

In my North Carolina middle school, for example, kids are tested in language arts, math and eighth grade science. 

There’s no tests for ANYONE else.

How exactly would a merit pay plan built around standardized test scores work in our school? 

Would teachers working in social studies, drama, band, PE, foreign language, and the computer labs be ineligible for any kind of bonuses?

If so, how would that impact their levels of commitment to advancing the work of our school and to improving the academic performance of our students?

Or—worse yet—would bonuses for teachers in those untested positions be determined based on the observations and evaluations of principals?

Think about the consequences of evaluating and rewarding teachers differently for a minute.

If I’m judged by nothing other than the numbers generated on multiple choice tests that cover less than 1/3 of the curriculum while my peers are judged by actual observations of students in action, I’m going to be more than a little hacked off.

As a guy who knows first-hand just how bad the standardized tests are that we give to students, I’d rather be evaluated based on observations any day. 

I know what my kids can do in action—and I know that for a variety of reasons, their scores on multiple choice tests aren’t always indicative of their actual abilities.

I also know that when my principals come into my classroom to observe, they pick up all kinds of additional evidence of what my students are learning. 

They can ask probing questions when kids give wrong answers.  They can look at additional student work samples connected to the content that we’re studying.  They can see me in action and make judgments about the content and skills that I’m teaching. 

Lesson for policymakers:  When you tie cash to evaluation systems, you’d better have a system of evaluations that treats everyone equally. 

Otherwise, no matter what choices you make, you’ll have more dissent and open resentment in the schoolhouse than you know what to do with!

Learning results for individual students—especially in middle and high schools—are dependent on teams of teachers.

I’m also amazed by merit pay plans built around standardized test scores simply because they suggest that the learning gains of individual students are the result of teachers working alone.

That’s just not true.

Take my learning team for example.  I’m a highly skilled language arts teacher who has spent the better part of my career showing students how to be better readers and writers.

I’m teaching science this year, though—and I’m successfully incorporating TONS of nonfiction reading and writing lessons into my work with students.

Now, what are the chances that these efforts are going to help my students on their language arts exams this year?

Right.  The odds are pretty high that at least a few of my students will do better on their reading exams because of me. 

But under merit pay plans built around standardized test scores, the credit for that work will go to the language arts teacher on our team.

That presents a ton of problems for merit pay proponents:

(1). I now have no real motivation to integrate reading and language arts skills into my classroom instruction.

(2). My school will have a flawed picture of just how successful my language arts colleague really is because her scores will be supported by my work.

(3). Other language arts teachers will be at a competitive disadvantage only because their science teachers haven’t got the same experiences and skills with language arts as I do.

Suggesting that the scores of individual students—especially in middle and high school—are dependent on JUST the work of the teachers in tested subjects in foolish, y’all.

We’ll never be able to financially sustain meaningful merit pay programs.

As a taxpayer, merit pay plans make me laugh simply because there’s NO chance that we’ll be able to support higher salaries for long.

Y’all do realize that we’re in the middle of some seriously tight budget times, right? 

Given those circumstances, how in the world are we supposed to sustain programs that pay teachers substantially more for helping students to earn higher scores on tests.

Right.  We can’t.

And as pretty much every expert on incentives has ever written, if you can’t sustain an incentive program, you’ll do more harm than you do good. 

There are cheaper incentives that matter more to teachers.

What frustrates me even more as a taxpayer is that there are cheaper ways to motivate teachers than merit pay programs built around test scores.

As my friend Dave Orphal points out in this hilariously sarcastic comment, while everyone wants to be paid a fair salary for the work that they’re doing, few people actually enter teaching because they’re driven by cash.

Look carefully at the kinds of incentives that the National Board Certified teachers here in North Carolina are motivated by and you’ll see that cash bonuses are not a priority for us.

Instead, we want to work for accomplished principals.  We want to work with accomplished peers.  We’d like additional credits towards retirement.  We’d like stipends for our children to attend public universities for a reduced cost.

None of these incentives aligns with the incentive programs that policymakers keep dreaming up.

And none of them would cost nearly as much to implement and to sustain. 

In the end, I find merit pay plans built around standardized test scores to be insulting as both a teacher and a taxpayer.

Not only do they suggest that teachers aren’t working as hard as they could be, they are evidence of a flawed understanding of what teachers really care about AND of how schools really  produce gains in student achievement.

But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by such miserably planned policies.  After all, no one making decisions spends any time consulting the people who are on the receiving end of those decisions. 



Related Radical Reads:

Merit Pay Plans for Teachers a Poor Idea

Why Performance Pay Will Kill Our Schools

More on Performance Pay

Evaluating White Space Educators

9 thoughts on “The Truth About Teacher Merit Pay Plans

  1. excel training

    I’m fairly certain if you told your teacher of this, she would feel compelled to report it to your school counselors. They would then discuss it with your parents – and if they don’t know about it, that’s not a great way for them to learn of it.

  2. Jen

    We need merit based pay for teachers. The fun is over. It is time to hold my kids Teachers accountable, just like in every other profession. No more guaranteed job for life, like most Government jobs today.

  3. Juliejoster

    I agree with all you wrote. Another problem with merit pay is that successful teachers will not be motivated to share resources and practices in a Professional Learning Community. Education will become even more proprietary than it already is. I know teachers who will not share resources with teachers at other schools because the school system has gone overboard in “recognizing” schools with the highest scores. I can’t even imagine what would happen if teachers were competing against each other for compensation.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Brad,
    First, thanks for stopping by—its good to see you in this space.
    Second, I always like to share the story of one of my previous students whose mom died the week before EOGs when I talk about merit pay plans. Needless to say, he tanked the end of grade exams. His mind, rightfully, was elsewhere.
    The hitch for me was that because I was teaching such a small cohort of students, that one really low score threw off my numbers pretty dramatically.
    How heartless is it that I even think about my numbers in this situation, right? Numbers honestly mean nothing when a child has lost his mom.
    But when you start to tie my evaluation, my continued employment and my compensation to those same numbers, its a bit of a different story.
    No wonder teachers and principals have started to cheat on standardized tests. The stakes are so high that the incentive to cheat outweighs the incentive to use the assessments to inform our practice and guide our choices.
    How do we help other people to see these lessons first hand? Its so obvious to us, but were preaching to the choir, and the choir doesnt have a lot of control of the direction of our system right now.

  5. Brad Goldman

    I completely agree with what you are saying. I don’t believe all teachers should be payed the same, I mean there isn’t any other field where every employee is payed the same regardless of how they perform. Standardized test scores are a bad way to base merit pay also. I mean besides the extremely important fact that not all subjects are tested, standardized tests are so dependent on how well students handle pressure, how much sleep they got, how distracted they are at the time, and many other factors.

  6. Jeri Hurd

    They use money as a motivator because much of the current reform hysteria is being driven by big-business (all those costly tests!), the hedge-fund types behind charter schools and others. Money IS the main motivator for them, so they assume it is for everyone.

  7. Ric Murry

    Either intentional or unintentionally, you have mentioned the true reason politicians espouse merit pay.
    It is a matter of reducing expenditures as our economy continues to worsen. Merit pay will only need to be given when there is money to do so. By reducing the base salary, and incentivising the rest, when there is no money there is no required payout beyond the baseline agreement.
    Regardless of increased/improved test scores (or any other bogus evaluation method on which merit pay could be built) the reduction in teacher pay is the issue, so politicians can claim that they have cut government spending. It’s a “get-elected” sound bite at teacher expense.

  8. Johntspencer

    Teaching is a social-civic venture and guided by social rather than economic norms. When we try to comodify something that is inherently social and democratic, we shift to economic norms. With this, we get economic values guiding everything from instruction and assessment to school culture and leadership. To me, that’s a dangerous place to be.

  9. Mike Kaechele

    The most important reason why merit pay won’t work is that I (and most teachers) already work as hard as I can to make my class the best it can be. Money does not motivate me. Students excited about learning does.
    All I ask is to be treated as a professional meaning fair compensation and academic freedom to teach in the ways that I feel are most effective.
    For example, I just left a district for lesser benefits for the opportunity to teach in a brand new PBL high school. I am working harder than ever because of how excited I am about the wonderful environment I get to teach in. I also am part of a team of educators who are committed to doing school in new ways to help students.

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