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As Teachers Struggle with Obama’s Reform Agenda, ‘Merit Pay’ Gets a Demerit

More input = more output. Pay more, get a better product. Unfortunately, the rules of the market economy don't translate well in a classroom, where the input may be an overworked, underpaid teacher, and the output springs from an unpredictable mix of fickle young minds, multiple cultures and languages, and the pressure of standardized tests, tattered books and not enough chairs.

Could that exhausted teacher do a better job if she got extra pay? For years, schools and policymakers have experimented with controversial "merit pay" schemes that tie salaries to students' test scores and other measures of achievement. But critics say merit pay only perpetuates an anti-intellectual obsession with punitive tests, reduces teaching into an antiseptic assembly-line process, and erodes the authority of educators, unions and communities.

New empirical evaluations of "pay for performance" programs in Chicago and New York City uncovered a counter-intuitive result: more pay doesn't seem to yield corresponding gains in academic achievement or stabilizing the teaching workforce.

The latest findings could impact national education reforms, since Education Secretary Arne Duncan is now crafting teacher incentive policies that reflect his experience with merit pay schemes as head of Chicago public schools. The administration has integrated teacher-incentive programs into its guidelines for schools seeking a bite of the Race to the Top fund-a pot of several billion dollars dangled before states to encourage them to follow Duncan's reform blueprint.

Race to the Top rewards school districts for "innovations" aimed at the aggressive overhaul of the "lowest-achieving" schools and revamping academic standards and testing systems. While these programs are framed as common-sense improvements, grassroots education activists chafe at the competitive, market-based ideology that has carried over from the Bush administration's brilliantly incompetent No Child Left Behind.

In the Chicago study, the research group Mathematica examined the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), which offered bonus payments in K-8 schools averaging $1,100 in the first year and about $2,600 in the second. The money was awarded based on promotion to "mentor" positions, along with "value added to student achievement and observed performance in the classroom." Comparing the teachers' performance over two years with that of a control group, the study found "no significant impacts on student achievement or teacher retention." Researchers also conceded that the study was limited because they "did not have reliable data on the quality of teachers retained" and did not track teachers who left their schools.

The New York study, led by Columbia University researchers, focused on a cluster of high-poverty schools with a reward system based on schoolwide bonuses for improvements on state reading and math exams. As with Chicago, the investigation found "little effect... on student achievement in the first or second year of the program."

In their discussion on possibly reasons why the project might fail, researchers argued, "Performance-based compensation is only feasible when reasonable measures of inputs or output are available," and that unlike, say, piece-rate factory work, "Education is a complex good."

Indeed, the quality and quantity of student learning is near-impossible to measure strictly through tests or grades. The school experience is contingent on many social factors outside the classroom, including the quality of a child's previous teachers, along with social and environmental factors like parental involvement and the child's health.

In both studies, researchers flagged possible flaws in the design of the programs. For example, incentives can get muddled when tied to schoolwide gains as opposed to individual teachers' performance. This suggests that rewarding the entire school for improvements might encourage individual teachers to "free-ride," with little motivation to change their routines.


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Whether the problems stemmed from faulty implementation or the basic theory of merit pay, the studies skirt the fundamental question of what constitutes "merit" in a society in which intellectual development is increasingly at odds with consumer capitalism.

Bill Ayers, a professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago and longtime education activist, told In These TImes that financial incentives for teachers tend to treat education as a mere commodity. In a market economy, he said, "If you sell more used cars, you get a bigger bonus." School, where teachers tend to be underpaid and overworked, isn't as straightforward.

"There's not one teacher I know in America who is going to work harder because they think they're going to get a bonus," Ayers argued. "They're working plenty hard, they're killing themselves, with very little support. They're having their autonomy stripped from them, and they're having the meaning of their work reduced and constrained."

Like the media assault on teacher unions and the proliferation of overhyped charter schools, Ayers said, differential pay policies feed into a broader agenda to privatize and homogenize education, reducing a humanistic endeavor to a commercial one:

The change they envision is going to destroy not only the school system as we know it, it's going to mean that only the wealthiest kids and the kids in private schools will have access to art and physical education and sports and games and creativity, and the rest of us are just getting trained to be drones in the system.

Mark Simon, of the education advocacy group Tom Mooney Institute for Teacher and Union Leadership, said that proponents of merit pay "assume that something good will happen if we reward teachers for high test scores, when in reality only bad things happen when teachers know that they can get money for bumps in test scores by their kids." Suggesting that arbitrary bonuses encourage schools to cheat the system, he added, "The curriculum is narrowed and indefensible things are done to meet the need for score gains."

Still, while progressive education activists and unions have generally chafed at the concept of performance pay, some reform advocates, such as the labor-oriented Economic Policy Institute, insist that bonus schemes can be targeted to help struggling public schools by attracting more effective teachers and in turn raising the quality of instruction for underserved students. Earlier research, according to a report by the Center for American Progress, indicates that such incentives could work if they are more holistic, "based on a variety of measures of teacher performance, including both student growth on standardized assessments and rigorous evaluations of teacher performance."

But none of these studies broach the ethical question at the heart of the merit pay debate: who benefits when we turn schools over to the rules of the marketplace? New York University education scholar and activist Deborah Meier said pay-for-performance policies aren't focused so much on enhancing the educational experience, but pushing a perverse ideology onto kids and teachers. "The value system is simple," she told ITT. "Whatever promotes your financial interest is good."

All sides of the reform debate believe teachers who succeed in building children's minds should be paid fairly. But how do we place a dollar value on teaching a child to read, to think about the world outside their neighborhood, or to challenge injustice and question authority? Bonuses for "performance" might look good on a balance sheet, but the really important lessons are priceless.

Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times,, and Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Common Dreams, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

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