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Three Things Every Parent and Politician Needs to Know about Merit Pay in Education

On the drive home today, I tuned in to the local talk radio station because the host was interviewing a TON of local and state political candidates and I wanted to learn more about their individual positions. 

The interviews were incredibly interesting --- especially when they turned to education simply because the host seemed to ask every candidate how they felt about merit pay for teachers. 

Considering how important the issue has become in conversations about the future of education, I decided to whip up a list of three things that I wish every parent and politician knew about merit pay.

Here they are:

Experts in fields BEYOND education are convinced that merit pay plans WON'T improve schools.

The simple truth about merit-based compensation plans is that they are ONLY effective in fields that require "rudimentary cognitive skills." 

In fact, research has shown that compensation plans that tie pay to performance may actually have a NEGATIVE impact in knowledge-driven fields like education.

Need proof? 

Then check out this RSA Animate video sharing the ideas of Daniel Pink -- a one-time supporter of merit pay plans in education whose personal opinion changed after studying nearly every independent research report on the impact of incentives on human motivation. 

Or this bit detailing the thinking of Chip and Dan Heath, who argue that our constant attempts to design a better carrot result in a tendency to focus on ONE variable -- which might successfully drive change in simple fields, but are destined to fail in work that is complex and dependent on multiple variables.


Most merit pay plans are generally built around high-stakes standardized tests that almost NEVER actually measure anything we REALLY want our students to know and be able to do.

In almost every conversation that I have with stakeholders about the skills that students need in order to succeed in tomorrow's workplace, people -- including employers in almost every field -- argue that kids need to be able to communicate, to collaborate, and to solve problems creatively. 

Sounds about right, doesn't it? 

If YOUR child left school having mastered those three skills, you'd be happy and they'd be successful no matter what profession -- or personal passion -- they decided to pursue.

Here's the thing:  Today's high stakes standardized end-of-grade exams -- which are almost ALWAYS used as the basis for deciding which teachers deserve merit pay bonuses -- don't measure ANY of those skills.  Instead, they measure nothing more than a student's ability to remember and regurgitate facts.

Which means that the merit pay plans that wonks like to tout as silver bullets for motivating lazy teachers end up simultaneously stripping classrooms of the kinds of higher-order skills that we claim to care about. 

Need proof?  Then look at what years of teaching in a tested classroom did to my instruction.


If you want to incentivize something, incentivize collaboration.

Something incredibly powerful is happening in my professional life this year:  I'm working on a learning team with two young teachers who are literally changing the way that I teach.  Both are skilled at developing hands-on, inquiry-based science experiences for kids.

That's an area of REAL weakness for me even if I AM certified to teach middle school science!

What's cool, though, is I'm having JUST as a significant impact on my colleagues. 

I bring a bunch of nonfiction reading experience to our collective planning table -- I have spent the better part of my career in language arts classrooms, after all -- and that's helping my peers, who AREN'T trained reading teachers.

That means collaboration is paying off for ALL of the kids on our hallway. 

My students are benefiting from the inquiry-based strengths of my peers and their students are benefiting from my experience as a reading teacher. 

That's beautiful, right?

But here's the thing:  That collaboration will DIE in a merit-based workplace.

Think about it:  Would YOU share your best practices with struggling colleagues if you knew that there was a limited pot of money that was going to be given to a small handful of teachers that produced the best scores? 

HECK NO.  You'd let THEM -- and more importantly, the KIDS in their classrooms -- fail miserably because it would give YOU a better chance of cashing in.

Which is why the report on redesigning professional compensation for educators that I wrote with 18 accomplished teachers a few years ago recommends incentivizing collaboration INSTEAD of individual performance.

If we believe that SOME teachers have discovered the best strategies for teaching essential knowledge and skills to our kids, why wouldn't we design incentive systems that encourage SHARING rather than COMPETITION between peers?


I get it, y'all.  There ARE real problems in our educational system that need to be addressed.  Change IS necessary. The uncomfortable truth that we've been all-too-willing to overlook is that our current approach to schooling just ain't working for a TON of our students.

But as a teacher AND a taxpayer, I cringe whenever I hear someone argue on behalf of merit pay programs simply because they WON'T improve schools. 

Instead, they're just another #edpolicy disaster that the kids in our classrooms will end up paying for.

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Bill Ferriter

Like many accomplished educators, Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) wears a ton of professional hats. He’s a Solution Tree author and presenter, an accomplished blogger a...