Merit pay is ‘blocked, diluted, co-opted’

Merit pay plans are blocked, diluated and co-opted, according to an Education Next study by Jay Greene and Stuart Buck of the University of Arkansas.  Even “symbolic” plans are rare. Only 3.5 percent of districts have some form of merit pay, including token plans.

To be truly effective, pay for performance must mean in education what it does in other industries—salary increases for the successful, and salary reductions, even dismissals, for poor performers. State laws governing teacher tenure in most states make implementation of such plans unlikely.

Many plans reward teachers “mostly or entirely for inputs (e.g., professional development, graduate degrees, national certification) rather than for outputs (test scores, graduation rates, or even supervisor assessments).”

Arizona’s Classroom Site Fund (CSF) required districts to allocate 40 percent of the money to “teacher compensation increases based on performance and employment related expenses.” Only 29 of 222 districts created “strong performance pay plans” that linked teacher pay to student achievement, according to a 2010 report from the Arizona Auditor General.  One example:

One district awarded performance pay to eligible employees if freshman students’ algebra test scores increased by at least 10 percent between a pre- and post-test. The actual increase in test scores was almost 90 percent. Since the pre-test is given to freshman students who have never been exposed to algebra and the post-test is given to them after receiving a full year of algebra instruction, it should be expected that scores would increase significantly more than 10 percent.

Denver’s much-hyped ProComp program rewards earning a degree more generously than improving student learning.

The largest monetary award is for earning a graduate degree: a $3,300 permanent salary increase plus a tuition or student loan subsidy of $1,000 per year for up to four years. By comparison, teachers receive a one-time award, not a bump up in base salary, of up to $2,403.26 if their students exceed “district expectations” for student growth.

Moreover, as Paul Teske, a principal evaluator of the ProComp program, noted in the Christian Science Monitor, bad teachers face no penalty under the ProComp or similar merit-pay programs: “I guess your salary stays low, and maybe that sends the message that you should look at another career. But ProComp doesn’t directly address that.”

Many districts turn merit pay into a small across-the-board pay boost, write Green and Buck. In Houston, 88 percent of teachers qualified for a small “merit” bonus. That’s nothing compared to Minnesota, where 22 school districts gave Q Comp bonuses to more than 99 percent of teachers.

Schools that don’t need to compete for students have no incentive to design pay schemes that attract the best teachers, Greene and Buck write.  In the 1999-2000 Schools and Staffing Survey, only 6 percent of traditional public school administrators said they used salaries to reward “excellence.” By contrast, 36 percent of charter administrators and 22 percent of private school heads offer performance pay.

About Joanne