Saturday, September 25, 2010

Research Study Shows Merit Pay for Teachers Doesn't Work

A study of what I view as one of the biggest issues in education reform announced its findings this week, and I don't the results have gotten nearly the attention they deserve.   (And if my opinions aren't sufficient for you this is important enough to read, also know that the study focused on middle school teachers.)

The National Center for Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt has just completed what they say is the first rigorous scientific study on the concept of merit pay--that is, paying teachers more or giving them bonuses if their class results on standardized tests rises.  This study followed 300 5th-8th grade math teachers for two years.  Half of the teachers were offered bonuses of different levels, up to $15,000 per year, for improvements on the Tennessee standardized exam on math that is used as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Initiative.  As with many such studies, the research had some good news and the bad news (depending on how you look at it). 

So here is my interpretation of the study:

The Bad News:  Merit pay didn't work.  Even offering an extra $15,000 didn't result in higher test scores--and this was in Tennessee, which is ranked 34th in the country in terms of teacher compensation by the American Federation of Teachers, with an average teacher salary in 2007 of $43,815 (compared to a national average of $51,009 or a high of $63,640 in California).  That is to say, offering a bonus of one third of their salaries didn't make a difference in student scores.

The Good News:  The reasons teacher reported that scores didn't rise was they were already doing all they could possible do.  Or, to look at it from the other side, even without monetary rewards for student achievement, teachers are already giving everything they have to support their students.

I think this is an incredibly important piece of news that deserves more attention.

This is not to say that some teachers might not be able to do a better job.  But if those teachers don't know how to teach well, just offering money is not going to suddenly make them better teachers.  They need other things--mentoring, more training, more staff support, or whatever.  And for all those good teachers out there--which I believe is the majority--it just shows that they aren't motivated by money.  They are teachers because they care, they enjoy it, they know they are making a difference in children's lives, and all sorts of things like this.

This study should not be used to justify inadequate pay for teachers.  Most teachers I know don't think they get enough money for the important role they play in our society--and I agree.  But they aren't looking for higher salaries because then they will be "more motivated" to serve their children, because they won't be--they are already highly motivated.  They want more pay as recognition for the critical work they do, not as a carrot to get them to "care more."

So I think this study is a terrific commendation of teachers and how much they work and give and care, regardless of their compensation.  And to me, it is another great example of why trying to apply typical industrial or business practices to education doesn't work.  Our schools are not like car dealerships or assembly line plants or stock brokerages; different rules, different dynamics apply there.

Finally, on a local note--I hope the Wake County School Board (the one that is talking about bringing in a "business leader" to run the school system) considers the implications of this study as they decide about the new Superintendent for this 158 school, nearly 140,000 school system (2009-2010 figures).


  1. Heh imagine homeschool parents being offered bonus for kids' performance. Offensive, really!

  2. Well, I thought about that when I read this post. But even if someone offered me $15,000 to raise my son's performance on some test--and as a one-income homeschooling family, we certainly could use that money--I don't know what I could or would do differently. I wouldn't give up all the time I spend on preparing for and teaching coop classes because I'm committed to the entire community as well as to him. And I'm already doing the best for him that I know what to do.

    So that's what I think the study results are saying--teachers (in the study, school teachers, but I think the same is true for homeschool teachers) are doing the best they can do, given the time, resources, knowledge base, and talents they have available. Maybe if you change one of those other factors, things could improve, but merely dangling a monetary carrot out there doesn't change the reality of the daily teaching experience.

  3. I remember studies about optimal payment for creatives. It comes to be about equal to their life needs and some small extras. That is, salary should be sufficient, but not too extravagant to be noticed. Any attention to the salary (bonuses, competitions) is dangerous.