In today’s Washington Post is another story about “merit pay” for teachers. But this one, by national education correspondent Lyndsey Layton, spends some space on my own thoughts on the topic.
For those new to the issue, or coming to the Pink Blog from Tweets about the article, let me summarize my views as succinctly as I can:
1. Some rewards backfire. Fifty years of social science tells us that “if-then” rewards – that is, “If you do this, then you get that” – are great for simple, routine tasks and not so great for complicated, creative tasks. Since teaching is creative and complex rather than simple and algorithmic, tying teacher pay to student performance (especially on standardized tests) flies in the face of the broad evidence.
2. Contingent pay for teachers just isn’t effective. What’s more, the specific evidence – a cluster of recent studies that have examined “if-then” pay schemes in schools – has shown them to be failures. See, for instance, this piece of research by Vanderbilt University or this one by Harvard’s Roland Fryer or this study by Rand that prompted the New York City public schools to abandon its pay-for-performance plan.
3. Money is still important. The fact that “if-then” motivators often go awry doesn’t mean that rewards in general or money in particular are bad. Not at all. The research shows that money matters. It just matters in a slightly different way than we suspect. Paying people unfairly — say, when Jane makes less than June for the same work — is extremely demotivating. And, of course, low salaries can deter some people from pursuing certain professions. Therefore, the best use of money as a motivator, at least for complex work, is to compensate people fairly and to try to take the issue of money off the table. That means paying healthy base salaries – and in the private sector, offering some non-gameable variable pay such as profit-sharing.
4. There’s a simpler solution. My own solution for the teacher pay issue, which I’ve voiced many times both in writing and in speeches, is to strike a bargain: Raise the base pay of teachers – and make it easier to get rid of underperforming teachers. Not only is this approach more consistent with the evidence, it’s easier to implement and doesn’t require a new bureaucracy to administer. (To her credit, Michelle Rhee launched some efforts to move in this direction.)
5. We’ve got the wrong diagnosis. The notion that the central problem in American education is lack of teacher motivation is ludicrous. The vast majority of teachers in this country are some of the most hard-working, dedicated people you’ll ever meet – folks who work their butts off in difficult conditions for little recognition. Pay for performance is a weak prescription in part because it’s based on a faulty diagnosis.
6. What really ails us. The real problems, at least in my opinion, are twofold. First, the American education system itself, which is based on 19th century principles and structures, is woefully antiquated. Second, we’re ignoring the issue of poverty and the overwhelming evidence that, absent comprehensive and expensive interventions, socioeconomic status is what drives much of educational attainment and performance. (This is one thing I actually liked about No Child Left Behind. It held someone’s feet to the fire for schools that were criminally negligent in serving low-income kids.)
7. Teaching isn’t investment banking. I find it peculiar that we single out teachers for “if-then” pay when we wouldn’t consider it for other public servants. Should we pay police officers based on how many tickets they write or whether the crime rate in their district drops? How about compensating soldiers based on whether our borders have been attacked or how many of their colleagues have been injured or killed? Would legislators, who are behind much of the bonuses-for-test-scores push, ever agree to hinge their own pay on whether budget deficits rose or fell?
8. Turn down the heat, turn up the light. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that the people on both sides of this issue are men and women with good intentions. Nearly everyone I’ve encountered is trying to do the right thing. Reasonable people can disagree about weighty matters. And most people are reasonable. The trouble is that much of our education policy — from how we finance it down to how we schedule buses — seems designed more for the convenience of adults than for the education of children. If we reckon with that unpleasant truth and have an honest conversation that places our kids at the center of our efforts, we can make a lot of progress.