Sunday, September 13, 2009

Little Merit in Merit Pay

In the months ahead we should make a distinction between alternative compensation and merit pay tied to student performance.

Broadly defined, alternative compensation is any pay for education employees for something other than length of service. If we were to look at our salary schedules traditional compensation are the "steps" down, and alternative compensation are the "columns" to the side for education.

There can be many types of alternative compensation. Educators cannot be blamed for wanting to experiment with those types that improve both the profession and their bank accounts.

Along with innovation in compensation, there is the resurrection of a quite old idea, merit pay tied to student performance. That's right, in spite of what any "reformers" might tell you merit pay is nothing new or innovative. It has been around a long time. For more than a century merit pay has been tried, failed and then tried again, and again.

Merit pay simply does not improve student learning, even when using the dubious measurement of test scores. Reformers, consultants, and politicians like to throw around data to support the initiative of the day; however, in the merit pay initiative you will see no data, no scientific controlled studies demonstrating student improvement because they do not exist.

If Delaware goes to some type of merit pay it will not be because of the opportunity to improve learning, but because of the opportunity to snare Race To The Top dollars and appease business interests behind some of the education foundations. As Alfie Kohn said in the wonderful Education Week article, "The Folly of Merit Pay" (9/17/2003)"Equally controlling pay-for-performance plans are based more on neoclassical economic dogma than on an understanding of how things look from a teacher's perspective."

Merit pay incentives start from the assumption that teachers are not giving 100% now. For some reason teachers are holding back effort, 10%, 20%, maybe more. If they are either bribed with more money or threatened with the loss of money, then they will give that extra effort and propel American students into a great college and on into middle class nirvana.

The education profession is self selecting as a group of people whose primary motivation is not money. Yet, there is all this effort to motivate them exclusively with money. Again quoting Alfie Kohn, "Pay people well, pay them fairly, and then do everything to help them forget about money."

More on all of this later.

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