The Merit Pay Disconnect

Stack Of CashGiven that the Michigan legislature is considering merit pay for public teachers, conservatives are attempting to convince residents that this free market idea is essential to improving educational outcomes. Unfortunately these articles tend to be heavy on opinion and light on data showing that merit pay actually improves educational outcomes.

The most recent examples of the merit pay arguments have been offered up by Tom Gantert at Capital Confidential and Brittany Baldwin here at the Detroit News. In this iteration of the argument “Teacher of the year” recipient Gary Abud represents the anecdotal evidence that proves the need for merit pay.

The contention is that while Mr. Abud has been chosen as Michigan’s best teacher he is not compensated accordingly because of evil union contracts that use degrees and years of service to determine his pay.

But here is where the supporters of merit pay make the giant leap of faith. Even without monetary incentives Gary Abud was motivated to become the best teacher in Michigan. Not only that, even when pushed on the topic Mr. Abud didn’t argue for merit pay. At this point the only people really arguing for merit pay are the corporatists, who, regardless of data, believe in their hearts that merit pay works – you know the way all great business decisions are made – completely void of data and analysis.

And while conservatives will argue that “innovation” and “creative solutions” are key in education apparently that only applies to Charter schools since these very same conservatives are trying to standardize everything in public education and are ironically pretending that all Americans are motivated by the same thing – money.

Would a pastor inspire more good deeds if he was incentivized to do so? Would a Doctors without Borders doctor save more lives if there was a monetary reward for doing so? Would a fire fighter put out more fires if it increased his pay?

The reality is teachers are motivated by their students not by money. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to be compensated fairly but these people have many options and choose to teach knowing the pay going in. As a matter of fact Gary Abud was studying to be a physician before deciding his true calling was education. Any business will tell you that you can’t design an effective incentive program if you don’t understand what motives the employees and insisting that everyone values money in the same way is perhaps the biggest reason why merit pay consistently fails.

But even beyond this there is a massive disconnect at play in this argument. The criteria for determining the teacher of the year are “biographies and written essays that describe educational history, professional development activities, philosophy of teaching and thoughts on emerging education trends and issues.” Conversely the criteria for determining merit pay bonuses currently being considered is student test scores. Perhaps Gary Abud’s students routinely get the best test scores in his district or the state but those scores were never a consideration in how successful a teacher he is.

If Gary Abud is the poster boy for great teachers then design your merit pay program to match the skills measured for this honor, otherwise admit that your obsession with merit pay has more to do with your personal beliefs than some well thought out free market style analysis that designs a truly effective program.

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