"The level of concern from our teachers is through the roof," Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts told the Star. "It's higher than I've
ever seen it."
Schools districts across the country continue to tinker with merit pay, despite a dearth of evidence showing it's an effective tool for reform. Boston
Public Schools is exploring whether offering cash bonuses to faculty helps boost student achievement,
handing out more than $400,000 in the first round of cash incentives to teachers and staff at schools that made gains on standardized tests.
Armed with sizable federal grants intended to spur reform and improve student learning, dozens of states are experimenting with incentive pay using a
wide range of formulas. In some schools, individual teachers earn bonuses based on the progress of their students. Other districts, like Boston, reward
the entire staff for overall achievement.
The Boston teachers union president, Richard Stutman, says his organization supports the all-for-one, one-for-all approach to incentives. "Individual
rewards set up an unnatural competitiveness in schools and leads to a potential divisiveness and a potential lack of sharing of best ideas among
teachers," Stutman told the Boston Globe. "Teachers work hard regardless of a reward."
The District of Columbia Public Schools rewards teachers, sometimes with as much as $25,000, for successive years of achievement. As Jason Kamras,
DCPS' chief of human capital, recently
told the New York Times
, "We want to make great teachers rich."
What's not yet clear is whether such bonuses will improve student learning. The National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University looked at three years of data from Nashville's public schools and
concluded that a merit pay pilot program had little or no effect on instruction or student achievement.
The Nashville pilot program, where teachers could earn up to $15,000 for improved student test scores, "was focused on the notion that a significant
problem in American education is the absence of appropriate incentives, and that correcting the incentive structure would, in and of itself, constitute
an effective intervention that improved student outcomes," according to the report's executive summary. However, "results did not confirm this
hypothesis," according to the researchers.
The notion that teachers might work more effectively if they know there's a cash reward at the finish line is an interesting one. (Stutman, the Boston
teachers union chief, told the Globe he doubted it was a motivating factor.) But how many other professions use merit pay to push
performance, and does it work?
A 2009 report
on teacher performance pay and accountability from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., found that "relatively few private-sector workers
have pay that varies in a direct, formulaic way with their productivity, and that the share of such workers is probably declining." Merit pay systems
in the private sector have been found to hurt job performance, rather than improve it, the report concluded. The researchers also make the case that
student test scores are not a reliable measure of how well teachers do their jobs.
If that's the case, then why are so many policymakers willing to bet that extra money will improve teacher -- and as a result, student -- performance?
This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.