New Research Shows Merit Pay for Teachers a Poor Idea

Did policy makers read the study published last week by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) showing that merit-pay for teachers may be ineffective and have unintended negative consequences.

EPI economist Joydeep Roy, co-editor with NYU's Sean Corcoran of this series, noted that "Policymakers should probably think twice before they transfer to education the pay system that has helped generate the global financial crisis."

Merit pay plans are less common in the private sector than people think, research shows. Only one in seven employees is covered by a merit pay plan and most of those workers are in real estate or sales.

In the proposed plans for teachers supported by Obama and by the US Department of Education in their Race to the Top grants, merit pay plans tie teachers' pay to the scores their students earn on standardized math and reading tests. Advocates of this approach base their support on two assumptions: first, that merit pay is long-established and widespread in the private sector, and second, that students' test scores are a reliable way to gauge how well teachers are doing their jobs. Both assumptions are faulty, according to the EPI research report.

In Teachers, Performance Pay, and Accountability: What Education Should Learn from Other Sectors, researchers Scott J. Adams, John S. Heywood and Richard Rothstein examine the evidence that underlies these assumptions, concluding that the use of merit pay systems has negative consequences that often block the larger goal of improving the quality of services.

Daniel Pink, author of the best selling book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, has an great presentation on YouTube discussing what motivates skilled labor people to do excellent work and surprisingly, it isn't money.

The three reasons that people are motivated to do excellent work according to Pink are

  • they are aligned with the purpose of the job
  • they are given some autonomy on the job
  • they are supported in gaining mastery of the job

Pink says, that "When the profit motive become unmoored from the purpose motive bad things happen -- like poor quality, shoddy work." We don't want teachers who are focused primarily on money and not on our kids.

Studies show that teachers are already purpose driven and while merit pay may temporarily improve performance over all it has no positive impact. Teachers need to be given more respect, more autonomy, better overall pay, supplies, and more classroom support to master their teaching skills. Merit pay doesn't work for the workplace and is a terrible idea for schools.

We need to stop looking for the silver bullet and start doing what we know works: supporting teachers in the classroom. The solution sounds too simple in our high tech world, but as I long time teacher, I know it works.