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.

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Comments

  1. People do realize that principals are often the people pushing their teachers to get grad degrees, right? Principals are huge believers in the stuff that gets doled out at ed schools. They’d do it more often, except they can’t require teachers to get education outside of school hours.

    People also realize that many principals are adamantly against methods that might improve results if they are not the right sort of method? For example, the California Framework for Teaching states unambiguously that ability grouping improves results, but it’s risky to split your kids up into abilities and let the principal see.

    I haven’t read the piece yet, but it seems to be premised on the belief that the “coopting” is done by teachers.

    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.

    hahahahaha. Is that a joke? In California, at least, most of the freshmen taking algebra are either taking it for the second time or were deemed very weak at math in eighth grade and took pre-algebra, where they did poorly. Now, even if Arizona has the majority of their students taking algebra in ninth grade, the following test realities almost certainly hold constant.

    The pre-test almost certainly included pre-algebra, and the students who were very good at prealgebra and taking algebra for the first time in ninth grade (a vanishingly small group) would have done quite well on the pre-test.

    The vast majority of students who enter algebra with low test scores will leave with low test scores. Those who leave with high scores started with high scores. So no, it should not be “expected” that scores would increase significantly more than 10 percent. Man, that’s astonishingly ignorant of the reality of algebra instruction.

  2. Merit pay is an internal accountability mechanism (the system judges itself). Internal accountability mechanisms inevitably fail when outsiders judge the success of the mechanism and outsiders’ interests differ from insider’s interests, as Axelrod explained in __The Evolution of Cooperation__ (and as economists have understood for more than a century. Internal accountability mechanisms start from a point well along in the process of regulatory capture.

    The most effective institutional accountability mechanism that humans have yet devised is a policy that gives unhappy customers the power to take their business elsewhere. Merit pay will have a chance to work only in a competitive market for education services.

  3. Joanne, you *really* should head over to Colorado Springs and interview Mike Miles of Harrison District 2. Seriously.

  4. Like most education ideas that originate in the office of some politician, merit pay is completely without merit. Cal is spot on in his statement about a 10 percent increase in the pre- and post-algebra test being ridiculous. Moreover, why do bureaucrats continue to push the idea of connecting merit pay to testing? The variables are endless. This is certainly no way to judge teachers.

    Will the stupidity never end?

  5. Mark Roulo says:

    Mark,

    FYI, I think Cal is a girl person :-)

    -Mark R.

  6. I think two of the commenters have overlooked a sentence that was quoted above:

    “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.”‘

    See that last line? The average test score increase in this Arizona district was 90%. Thus, it’s odd to be told that it’s “ridiculous” or “astonishingly ignorant” to say that students could do better than a 10% increase. They were already doing 9 times better than that.