Making merit pay work

Merit pay motivates teachers if they fear losing compensation, writes Patrick Brennan, citing a new study.

Researchers offered performance pay to two groups of teachers in nine low-income K-8 schools near Chicago. Half were told they could get up to $8,000 at the end of the year, based on their students’ progress. The other half got $4,000 up front with the chance to make more if their students’ made above-average gains or give back money if their students showed below-average performance.

“Gain” groups showed weak but insignificant benefits for student achievement, while the “loss” groups showed very significant gains . . . “roughly the same order of magnitude as increasing average teacher quality by more than one standard deviation.”

Apparently, “loss aversion” is known to be a more powerful motivator than the hope of gain.

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  1. Numerous other pilots and studies have shown the opposite.

    The beatings will continue until morale improves, as they say.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    It’s an interesting thought… that greatness and/or adequacy in teaching is a matter of motivation.

    Maybe. But maybe not.

    • Is that true in journalism or blogging? And the equivalent would be to tie the pay to increases in readership/page views, right? Sauce for the goose, except that it’ll never happen.

      (But any journalist who promotes merit pay for teachers based on test scores is morally obligated to promote merit pay for journalists based on readership.)

      • Turns out it is true that in journalism and blogging compensation’s related to competence, i.e. readership/page views.

        If only that were the case in the teaching profession, hey? Good teachers getting paid more then mediocre teachers and lousy teachers finding themselves on the taco-assembly track?

        A radical notion I know but the times they are a changin’ as an awful singer and mediocre songwriter once put it. Who knows? Some time in the not-so-distant future teaching may find a venue in which the skill is highly enough valued to differentiate between the competent and the incompetent.

        • Actually, journalists cringe at that notion, because it’s celebrity gossip, and stories about the man with the world’s largest penis getting questioned by the TSA, that win the page views. Coverage of education policy, city government, the state budget and so forth is way down the list.

          • Actually, who cares what notion they cringe at? Pull in the numbers, get the big bucks.

            It’s only the blessed freedom from any considerations of excellence, or even competence, that put teachers above such unappetizing considerations as getting paid according to how well they do your job. Nice gig if you can manage it but, naturally, not too many people can or the rest of the world would be as much of a mess as public education.

            So what do you think? Is the irony of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” as the anthem of us “reformy” types enough to make you gag?

  3. lightly seasoned says:

    Or maybe they just know by experience that the district is far more motivated to dock their pay than increase it. I mean, look at all that “merit pay” for National Cert. and passing AP scores that evaporated as soon as budgets got tight. We know that taxpayers don’t want to pay more taxes, and that’s what is required by any merit pay scheme.

  4. Maybe they could just use whips instead. Teachers whose students do poorly get publicly flogged. Teachers whose students do well get to avoid being whipped in the public square.

    • Shouldn’t it be the students who ought to be flogged?

      I’ve certainly heard often enough how the teacher has little to no responsibility for the kids learn anything so perhaps the responsibility lies where it’d be most convenient for the people paid to teach the kids.

      Then I’ve also heard that it’s the responsibilty of the poor parents for not earning more money so maybe the parents ought to be flogged?

      But doesn’t society have a responsibiity to make sure that there are no poor people? Aren’t we all responsible for the task of elevating all poor people to the middle class so they’ll develop the values that make their kids a breeze to teach?

      Wouldn’t that mean we all need to be flogged?

      Man, that’s going to be tough arrange.

      Still, it’s that or hold the people being paid to do the job responsible for getting it done. But that’s just crazy talk.

      • Wouldn’t it make sense to also regard the students as responsible for getting the job done since all of the money spent is on their behalf? Especially by the time the kids are in high school, their own motivation to learn is probably the biggest factor in their success.

        I don’t support flogging anybody, but I find it odd that even when we talk about high school students’ performance, we sometimes act as if students are entirely passive in their own outcomes. Anyone who has been a student knows that’s not true.

        • No.

          Students aren’t a willing party to this arrangement. They have as much responsibilty for the success of public education as a kidnapping vicitm has to the net worth of their kidnapper.

          Besides, we’re already paying people to do this job. If they’re incompetent then they ought to be fired. If the job can’t be done then we shouldn’t waste any more money trying to do it.

          • Even if you are trying to make an extreme point about compulsory education, high school continues past the age that most kids can drop out. The students are hardly equivalent to kidnapping victims, and you’ve really tipped your hand here about the extremity of your view.

            I’m done ever considering anything you write here.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            I love this comment, allen. 😉

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            I’m generally in agreement with allen’s premises, and I think the kidnapping analogy is very cute. The student’s responsibility is for their OWN success — not success in school, butin life.

            To the extent that this may or may not correlate with or depend on success in school, a student may choose to make their schooling “successful” in the sense of academic accomplishment.

            But allen’s absolutely correct that the student owes the school nothing. (At least not ex ante, with respect to the school’s academic success.)

            As I’ve written several times over the last few years, when the students figure out that the entire institutional edifice that’s been built around them depends on their *choosing* to do well on state exams, there will be a reckoning, and people may not like what that reckoning will reveal about compulsory schooling’s moral underpinnings.

  5. Supersub says:

    No conclusions can be made from this…the sampled teachers represent a very small and likely homogeneous group. Would love to see this repeated in high performing suburban schools.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    Spent most of my life in commission sales. It does encourage you to try to figure out ways to do better. “gain” vs. “loss” end up being equal since you need the gain and not getting it is a loss. Mentally, not arithmetically.
    I can see a teacher trying to figure out a way to bump the numbers, or trying to be a better teacher overall. But sometimes the most effective tactic is to get that one kid to do better. Going from F to B is a bigger change than from B+ to A. More effect on the numbers. So we don’t know, from the article, just exactly how the numbers went up, and what we think about it in terms of education.
    When I was in the Army, a common suspicion when a company did particularly well on an evaluation was that the sad sacks had all been convinced to go on sick call that day, . Worth looking into. If the powers-that-be reward ostensible improvement, ostensible improvement is what they’ll get, and that may not be actual improvement. Controls have to be added.

  7. @Michael, I was a high school mom from 2005 through May 2012. Students are perfectly well aware that their school is judged on how they do on standardized tests and that there are no rewards or consequences for them. The ones who are so inclined already notoriously bubble in their Scantron sheets in the shapes of Christmas trees.