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Nov 29

Extend Your Thinking on Merit Pay

Governor McDonnell campaigned on the idea of merit pay for teachers and administrators. Whether you agree or disagree with his idea, I think you have to respect someone who actually implements something they campaigned on.  Approximately 10% of the school divisions are piloting a merit /incentive pay plan during this school year using the revised teacher evaluation plan adopted by the Virginia Board of Education which links teacher evaluation to student academic growth. As the Governor develops his budget for the next biennium, it would not be suprising if he includes funds for similar initiatives.

Whether you agree or disagree with the merit pay initiative, you need to address the most recent studies on merit pay. If you disagree with merit pay, you will have some ammunition that states that merit pay plans do not work for teachers.  If you agree with a merit pay plan, you need to analyze the studies very carefully to determine their validity, reliability, and whether or not they would be applicable in Virginia.  In either case, you should be aware of the research.  There are three such studies that have been published within the last year or so.  These studies reference merit pay plans in Nashville, Chicago and New York.

Vanderbilt published a study in September 2010 related to a merit pay plan in Nashville titled “Performance Experimental Evidence from the Project on Incentives in Teaching” which concluded that “students of teachers randomly assigned to the treatment group (eligible for bonuses) did not outperform students whose teachers were assigned to the control group (not eligible for bonuses).”  The executive summary of the study can be accessed at: http://www.performanceincentives.org/data/files/pages/POINT%20REPORT_9.21.10pdf

A study on the merit pay plan adopted in Chicago (where Arne Duncan, current U.S. Secretary of Education, was superintendent) titled  “An Evaluation of the Teacher Advancement Program  (TAP) in Chicago: Year Two Impact Report” was released in May 2010.  The study “found no evidence that the program raised student test scores.” The study can be accessed at the following site-it may look like you cannot read the online document but keep scrollong down, it will be readable: http://www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications/pdfs/education/tap_yr2_rpt.pdf.

The most recent study, connected to the Schoolwide Performance Bonus Program (SPBP) in New York, was released by the Rand Corporation in 2011.  The study “found no effects on student achievement. Overall, SPBP did not improve student achievement in any grade level.”  The study can be accessed online at:  http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2011/RAND_MG1114.pdf

The work of Daniel Pink in his book titled Drive: The Suprising Truth About What Motivates Us  (Riverhead Books: New York, 2009) is an interesting look at the research on motivation in a business environment.  Pink argues that incentive pay works as a motivator for routine tasks, but that the research does not support merit pay as an incentive for tasks that require cognitive skills and creativity.  Instead, he argues that the research states that individuals are intrinsically motivated by three things: autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Employees want some sense of autonomy to be able to make their own decisions.  Employees are motivated by the desire for mastery or their need to get better at what they do.  Finally, highly motivated employees are motivated by a higher purpose through their commitment to their organization and helping the organization achieve at higher levels. It is interesting to note that Pink’s third motivator (purpose) is very similar to what Jim Collins wrote in  Good to Great and the Social Sectors (2005).  Collins stated that Level 5 leaders were “ambitious first and foremost for the cause, movement, the mission, the work – not themselves…(p. 11)”

In addition to the book, there is a very good short video of one of Pink’s presentations at a TED conference which can be accessed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y.

Please note that I am not arguing against some type of merit or incentive pay.  As a building level principal, I worked under a merit pay plan for almost ten years.  My salary was driven by my evaluation which included a four-person team (an assistant superintendent, a central office person, a building administrator in the division (but not in my school), and a teacher who was selected by the superintendent.  That team evaluated me and that evaluation was 85% of my total score.  The superintendent also evaluated principals and his evaluation counted 15%.  When completed, each principal was placed on a scale from 1 – 100.  If an administrator reached 70, a cost-of-living increase was granted. Reaching a higher benchmark resulted in a merit increase while reaching the highest benchmark resulted in an incentive raise.eachers

Perhaps it is important to look at the purpose of merit pay:  is it designed to reward the best teachers based on the division evaluation plan which will include a connection to student academic growth or to motivate teachers to improve student academic achievement?  As a reward, merit pay could be a way to increase the salary of those teachers who make the biggest difference even if they are not motivated by the plan.

Finally, there appears to be one major difference in the teacher evaluation plan in Virginia with the national studies. The national studies appear to be focused on whether or not students passed a test.  That is a different question than asking if the student made a year’s worth of academic growth while with a teacher.

Regardless of your personnal opinion of merit /incentive plans, you need to examine the evidence and make sure that what  you are attempting to measure is exactly what you are measuring.  Demonstrating a year of academic growth in one year is a lot different than having a student pass a test.  I am not aware of any national studies that have looked at student academic growth as the major indicator.  Most appear to be focused on students passing the test. I trust someone is conducting a study of the Virginia pilots.