Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education to George H.W. Bush and education historian, has researched merit pay and its effects on public schools, its teachers, and its students. Her research shows:
1. From 1918 to the 1950s, the number of schools using merit pay dropped from 48 percent to 4 percent in cities with a population over thirty thousand. By the mid-1980s, 99 percent of teachers in the US taught in districts that offered a uniform salary schedule based on experience and education.
2. When New York City adopted merit pay, the city spent $56 million in teacher bonuses. After three years, they concluded that merit pay did not raise test scores or increase teacher satisfaction, and the district abandoned the plan.
3. In 2010, Vanderbilt University conducted a study in which a bonus of $15,000 was offered to teachers whose students’ test scores improved. The control group did not receive a bonus regardless of their students’ scores. After comparing the test scores of both groups, no significant difference was found, despite the size of the bonus.
While research shows that merit pay does not work, it is also important to consider why this system that is based on test scores or evaluation scores is ineffective.
1.Teaching is not a business, and teachers’ effectiveness cannot be measured quantitatively. For example, in many businesses, employees can be paid based on how much they produce or how much they sell. By contrast, teachers cannot be measured by the number of students who pass a test given the many variables that affect testing outcomes. Also, the lack of reliable measurement tools to evaluate teacher performance makes the policy inherently unfair.
2. When teachers are measured by their students’ scores, they begin to teach only the subjects that will be assessed. This narrows the curriculum and leaves out important subjects like social studies, writing, and the arts.
3. Under this model, teachers are more likely to focus their attention on the students who are “on the bubble”, leaving behind the lowest performing students and the students who are likely to pass the test anyway. Additionally, teachers would prefer to have a classroom of students who are likely to make the largest gains, again leaving behind a core group of students.
4.Using teacher evaluation scores to increase teachers’ pay is problematic because of the subjective nature of the evaluation. Teachers want to know that they are being evaluated fairly. This creates tension among teachers and administrators. Teachers compete against each other, rather than collaborating, and principals are forced to choose who earns a bonus based on subjective criteria.
5. Performance pay promotes short-term thinking rather than long-range goals by forcing teachers to think about themselves rather than what is best for the students in their school.
I am not convinced that merit pay is the answer; there is a vast amount of evidence from districts where it has failed. Schools are not corporations whose sole purpose is to make money. Teachers are not salespeople whose contributions to the organization can be measured by the number of products they sell.
Merit pay trivializes the teaching profession. The idea that teachers will work harder or teach more effectively when there is an opportunity for more money is contrary to why most teachers enter this profession. I became a teacher to do what is best for children, and if my focus is only on increasing test scores so that I can make more money, I am not doing what is best for them. What is best for children is teaching all subjects thoroughly, not just the tested ones. It is teaching critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving. What is best for children is teaching all of them, not just the ones who will increase my salary by passing the test. It is collaborating with colleagues and sharing ideas, not keeping my best ideas to myself so that I can get a bigger bonus than my teammates. As a teacher, I want to do what is best for my students, not just myself, and merit pay does not support that idea.