Although this will come as a shock, offering incentives to teachers for increased student achievement - a concept referred to as "merit pay" - doesn't seem to produce the results the "reformers" said it would. In fact, according to a recently released study by the Harvard economist Roland Fryer, merit pay actually often hurt student performance rather than increasing it.
I know. You're surprised. Try to hold back your astonishment enough to make the jump and I'll explain.
We must fire the bad teachers so we can pay the good teacher more! At least that's the story "reformers" like Bill Gates seem to be sticking to. But the problem, as demonstrated by Fryer's study of 200 high-need schools in New York, with 20,000 teachers, over three years, demonstrated that offering cash bonuses to teachers just plain didn't work:
The program, which was first funded by private foundations and then by taxpayer dollars, also had no impact on teacher behaviors that researchers measured. These included whether teachers stayed at their schools or in the city school district and how teachers described their job satisfaction and school quality in a survey.
The program had only a “negligible” effect on a list of other measures that includes student attendance, behavioral problems, Regents exam scores, and high school graduation rates, the study found.
So merit pay did not stop the exodus of teachers from high-need schools. It did not retain teachers in the district. It did not make teacher feel any better about their position. It did not help keep kids in school. It did not reduce behavior issues. It did not help test scores. It did not increase graduation rates either.
So what did it do? It did cost $75 million dollars. What to you get for $75M in education reform:
Researchers were also surprised to find that middle school students actually seemed to be worse off. After three years attending schools involved in the project, middle school students’ math and English test scores declined by a statistically significant amount compared to students attending similar schools that were not part of the project.
But researchers were surprised by a few results:
In his study, published as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, Fryer writes that researchers were surprised to see that schools that won bonuses overwhelmingly decided to distribute the cash fairly evenly among teachers. More than 80 percent of schools that won bonuses gave the same dollar amount to almost all of the eligible educators.
If you're not a teacher, this might be surprising to you. If you are, you know teachers value collaboration and the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. Competition occurring between teachers is the antithesis of a high performing school. Teachers, when given a challenge often rise above it by working together. Dividing bonuses unevenly between teachers in a building creates competition. It reinforces the misplaced notion that a student's achievement can be compartmentalized into the actions of one teacher or one classroom. It reinforces that behaviorist view that punishing bad behavior and rewarding good behavior works.
One of the reasons for merit pay lacking merit is because of the misplaced belief that money motivates all behaviors. Maybe this works for corporate America, the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican party, but it doesn't work in professions like teaching. This terrific must see video from RSA Animates adaptation of Dan Pink's talk on drive is a great explanation.
In short, the research on this is well known and pretty clear: If a person is asked to do a menial task or mechanical skill - simple rote memorization or repetitive tasks - bonuses work. Once the task calls for even rudimentary cognitive skill, rewards lead to poorer performance. At over 1,500 decisions in a day, I think it's safe to say that teaching is safely within the rudimentary cognitive skill range.
So what would motivate teachers? Autonomy - the ability to direct their own profession. Part of such self-direction would be for teachers to be valued as the professional educators they are and be sought for their expert opinion on what would actually increase student achievement in their classrooms. Real autonomy increases engagement. Real autonomy leads to innovation. Real autonomy fits with those people who go into a profession with the notion of what Pink calls "transcendent purpose". I think this term explains why the vast majority of teachers are teachers.
But autonomy and transcendent purpose doesn't fit the "reform" narrative of "bad teachers" who need to be held accountable.
Merit pay does.