Is Merit Pay a Distraction in the Fight for Meaningful Education Reform?

Merit pay is hot. Every few years something like this happens in education policy. Support for one or another reform method -- small schools, or uniforms, or reducing class size -- turns into a litmus test for whether or not an educator, advocate, or writer really supports education "reform"; whether, in the perennial question of education reformers and policy makers everywhere, a person truly "puts children first."

These days, a lot of folks believe that the best way to overhaul urban school systems is to change the way in which teachers are paid. If struggling districts pay the most, the thinking goes, the best teachers will flock to them, regardless of concerns about safety, curriculum, and other working conditions. Michelle Rhee, Washington, D.C.'s controversial schools chancellor, is staking her career on an attempt to push through the most aggressive merit pay proposal in the country. She is opposed by many D.C. parents and community activists, and is currently locked in contentious negotiations with the Washington Teachers' Union and its national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers.

Although Rhee has had little concrete success so far, the mainstream press is infatuated with her and her brash style. The New York Times' op-ed page adores her, with both Nicholas Kristof and David Brooks singing her praises. Locally, Rhee has the support of The Washington Post editorial board, despite legitimate concerns about how she will pay for her expensive plan amid an economic crisis. (Rhee proposes paying teachers as much as $131,000 annually after bonuses. She says private philanthropies will pony up the dough as a "pilot project.")

But is merit pay -- tying teachers' salaries to the academic performance of their students, many of whom struggle with severe social problems such as poverty, lack of health care, hunger, and domestic abuse -- really a magic bullet? The conviction that the American education system needs "reform" actually predates the system itself. As long as there have been schools, there has been cultural anxiety about how to fix them. And that anxiety has persisted despite steady improvement in student achievement.

From John Dewey to Theodore Sizer to E.D. Hirsch, every decade has one or two education reform gurus who lead the charge for change. Ultimately, though, the American education system is much the same as it always was: a highly localized system in which individual towns, cities, counties, and states have almost complete control over what children learn and how they learn it. The federal government plays only the loosest of supervisory roles, contributing just about 7 percent of school funding. Most poor children and children of color go to school with kids like themselves. Middle class and affluent parents have more choices, which they express primarily through the decision of where to live.

But under President Barack Obama's leadership, many education experts have hope that Washington will finally take a more active role in our nation's schools. Obama directed $54 billion of his economic stimulus package toward schools. In his first address to Congress, he called education the primary way in which Americans can both better themselves and serve their country. In a conference call with reporters last week, Obama's secretary of education, Arne Duncan, singled out merit pay as a key focus. Duncan noted that 36 districts across the country are doing "interesting things around compensation," and that he hopes federal dollars will increase that number to 150.

So with the nation's eyes trained on D.C.'s negotiations over merit pay, and politicos expecting other districts to follow suit, it's worth looking at some of the existing performance pay systems. Are teachers and administrators happy with them? Is there any actual evidence that they improve student achievement? Or is merit pay just the latest fad in education policy?

Denver is the host of the nation's highest profile experiment in performance pay, and the program most frequently mentioned as a model for other districts. Under the system, known as Pro-Comp, teachers can earn bonuses for teaching in hard-to-staff schools or subject areas, as well as for increasing student achievement. Standardized test scores are one measure among many used in principals' performance evaluations of teachers, which determine whether they will be rewarded the additional pay.

A 2008 study by the University of Colorado did find that veteran Denver teachers who opted into Pro-Comp were more successful at raising student test scores than their colleagues who opted out. But the researchers cautioned against assuming that the merit pay system itself was responsible for the success. Rather, more effective teachers likely chose Pro-Comp knowing in advance that they'd be able to earn the bonuses. Indeed, only 38 percent of Pro-Comp participants and 15 percent of non-participants told researchers that they believe the program improves student achievement. And only about one-third of Denver teachers described morale in their schools as "high."

Those numbers aren't particularly encouraging. And there is another problem with translating Denver's experience to a city like Washington, D.C. Unlike the reform advocates in Denver, Michelle Rhee came to the negotiating table with the explicit goal not only of attracting dynamic, young teachers to the city, but also of pursuing large scale lay-offs. That gives the Washington union-management negotiations a particularly hard edge.

In Denver, on the other hand, it was infighting among teachers that dominated media coverage of last August's contract negotiations. After the Denver teachers' union threatened a strike over the renegotiation of Pro-Comp, a group of young teachers formed Denver Teachers for Change. Three-hundred-and-fifty Denver teachers signed DTC's petition seeking to avert a strike and reform Pro-Comp to provide teachers with larger starting salaries and pay increases during their first 12 years of service. In other words, no merit pay proposal is static; these are experiments that will require continuous testing and tweaking, and about which people are sure to disagree for years to come.

Denver is not the only model for performance pay. In New York City, Memphis, and other districts, teachers unions have supported school-wide bonus systems. Under these programs, the entire staff of a school is rewarded if student achievement in that school improves from one year to the next, as measured by aggregated standardized test scores. In Memphis, principals can earn $7,500 and classroom teachers $2,500. In New York, 200 needy schools participated in a performance pay pilot program during the 2007-2008 academic year, and 62 percent of them qualified for the bonuses. Eighty-nine percent of participating teachers voted to try the system out for a second year, a satisfaction rate much higher than that of Pro-Comp.

Undoubtedly, the Washington Teachers Union would be more comfortable with a program like New York's than one like Denver's. The rejoinder, of course, is that only by evaluating the performance of individual teachers can administrators encourage best practices and push poor performers out of the profession.

Ultimately though, the debate over teacher pay may be a distraction from more intractable problems, ranging from child poverty and school segregation to our lack of national curriculum standards. President Obama has said he doesn't have the luxury of working on one issue at a time; that we are at a crisis point when it comes to both health care and housing, climate change and the car industry.

Writ smaller, the same can be said for education policy. We should be working on better ways to compensate, recruit, and train teachers. But if we don't recognize that schools exist within a larger societal context, our reform efforts will likely go the way of history: we will tinker with, but not truly overhaul, our education system.

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