Why not give merit pay a shot?
I confess I’m somewhat baffled by Dana Goldstein’s beef with merit pay:
Forty years of psychological research demonstrates that when someone is faced with a complex, creative task — like teaching — money is an ineffective motivational tool, and may even delay progress. Professionals engaged in creative work are more likely to be motivated by autonomy, and by the feeling that they are part of a larger, socially important enterprise.
This jives with the latest findings from one of my favorite education researchers, Cornell University labor economist C. Kirabo Jackson. After looking at North Carolina schoolchildren for 11 years, Jackson found that students’ test scores improved when a high quality teacher taught in their grade-level — even if they were not themselves in that teacher’s class. Why? The positive impact comes not because teachers are competing with another for merit pay rewards, but because they are working alongside more competent colleagues, who are improving their skills.
“If it’s true that teachers are learning from their peers, and the effects are not small, then we want to make sure that any incentive system we put in place is going to be fostering that and not preventing it,” Jackson told Education Week. “If you give the reward at the individual level, all of a sudden my peers are no longer my colleagues—they’re my competitors. If you give it at the school level, then you’re going to foster feelings of team membership, and that increases the incentive to work together and help each other out.”
“Forty years of psychological research” notwithstanding, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to argue that teaching – unlike nearly every other profession known to man – is immune to monetary inducement. Moreover, teacher quality is measurable, and there seems to be a correlation between merit pay and improving student achievement. It’s also worth noting that reform need not jeopardize educators’ job security: DC, for example, wants to allow teachers to choose between a tenure-track career with less financial compensation and a more lucrative merit-based option.
I’m not opposed to experimenting with different incentive structures, so rewarding schools collectively may be worth trying. But it occurs to me that across-the-board opposition to certain reforms is precisely the wrong way to go about fixing our public schools. As E.D. says, all education is local, and foreclosing district- and state-level experimentation on the grounds that it may not work or that it offends members of your ideological coalition seems pretty silly. Maybe there’s something to Goldstein’s collective rewards program (then again, maybe not). Maybe correlation doesn’t equal causation and merit pay is a false hope. To return to the DC example, however, we’re talking about a school system that spends a ton of money and is still ranked as the worst in the country. So why not give merit pay a shot?
UPDATE: This sounds about right to me.