An idea that has been tossed back and forth among education reformers for decades is “merit” pay for teachers.  The reasoning is that the more the students in a class learn, the more money their teacher makes.  It is part of the classic “run schools like a business” mantra.  And it is an idea that has been researched time and time again.

As you see in this information from the Economic Policy Institute, “merit” pay (which will probably surface in the next session of the Alabama legislature) is far from being the magic potion that will improve schools and student performance.

A news release from EPI states:

Advocates of this approach base their support on two assumptions: first, that merit pay is long-established and widespread in the private sector, and second, that students’ test scores are a reliable way to gauge how well teachers are doing their jobs. Both assumptions are faulty.

EPI economist Joydeep Roy noted that “Policymakers should probably think twice before they transfer to education the pay system that has helped generate the global financial crisis.” 

One of the chief shortcomings of test-based accountability in education is that it doesn’t take into account the wide variations in student characteristics. Researcher Richard Rothstein says,  “A school with large numbers of low-income children, high residential mobility, great family stress, little literacy support at home, and serious health problems may be a better school even if its test scores are lower than another whose pupils do not have such challenges; similarly for teachers.”

Rothstein add, “In education, most policy makers who now promote performance incentives and accountability, and scholars who analyze them, seem mostly oblivious to the extensive literature in economics and management theory documenting the inevitable corruption of quantitative indicators and the perverse consequences of performance incentives that rely on such indicators. Of course, ignorant of this literature, many proponents of performance incentives are unable to engage in careful deliberation about whether, in particular cases, the benefits are worth the price.”

Stay tuned, this one is going to get interesting.