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Unions Cheer When Socialist-Style Merit-Pay Scheme Doesn't Work

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Earlier this week, the RAND Corporation released the results of a study that found merit pay had no effect on increasing student achievement or teacher motivation.

Teacher union supporters are gleefully promoting this study as proof that merit pay does not work.

Before the RAND study enters the information bloodstream and is accepted as conventional wisdom, Education Action Group would like to point out two serious concerns we have with the study:

First, buried three paragraphs from the bottom of RAND’s press release announcing the results, is this little stink bomb:

Researchers also found that a majority of the schools disseminated the bonuses equally among staff, despite program guidelines granting school committees the flexibility to distribute the bonus shares as they deemed fit.”

In the summary, the study’s authors elaborate:

About 31 percent of schools reported using individual performance as at least one of the factors for determining awards. The remaining schools either did not differentiate or reported using only factors related to time or job title but not individual performance.

The authors go on to note the 31 percent of schools that actually recognized individual performance “generally remained cautious about deviating from egalitarian awards and slated 74 percent of staff, on average, for the modal award amount.”

This approach to “merit pay” seems to be the equivalent of a t-ball game in which everybody gets a hit and scores a run. If nearly every teacher is receiving “merit pay,” then it ceases to be actual merit pay, and instead becomes a kind of generic bonus that won’t motivate anybody.

This philosophy has been the unions’ compromise: they’ll relent to a merit-pay bonus system, but only on a socialist-style, building-wide level. Individuals shouldn’t reap the rewards of their excellence; instead, the below-average teacher down the hall gets to enjoy it, too. This throws the study’s findings into serious question and causes one to wonder if the unions invited such a compromise knowing it would fail.

Second, EAG believes it is unwise to view merit pay only as a carrot to be dangled in front of teachers, enticing them to perform better. Merit pay should be given to teachers who already perform better. Excellent teachers will be excellent teachers regardless of their compensation. Merit pay should simply reward them for their excellence and the positive results they produce. Pink slips should be given to those who don’t produce positive results.

The study’s authors write:

The limited motivational effect of the bonus might have resulted from school staff viewing the award as a reward rather than an incentive: It made them feel appreciated for their hard work, but they claimed that they would have undertaken this work with or without the bonus.”

If the bonuses made effective teachers “feel appreciated for their hard work,” then EAG believes the value of merit pay is affirmed. No further study is required.

Merit pay proponents believe such bonuses work because they allow schools to recognize and honor effective teachers for their professionalism. EAG believes merit pay is an ideal way to elevate the education profession, and will help attract and retain top talent.

Teacher unions, on the other hand, refuse to acknowledge that teachers have various levels of talent and ambition. Instead, unions treat educators as interchangeable and indistinguishable workers – each one no better or no worse than the teacher down the hall. That’s why the unions resist the concept of merit pay, and rejoice when studies such as this one get published.

Bottom line: The RAND study seems to use a debased concept of merit pay and may have a design flaw that makes its conclusions unconvincing.

EAG hopes additional social scientists review the study and clarify some of these questions before the report is enshrined as conventional wisdom.

Until that happens, we hope the RAND study does not undercut many of the promising innovations that are being implemented in public schools nationwide.

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