Merit Pay Isn't The Answer

Superintendent Ramon Cortines more and more reminds me of the guy who jumped off a skyscraper and was heard to say as he passed floors on the way down, "So far, so good." Here at perdaily, we continue to marvel at the animated debate of public education reform from which we cannot stop wondering why everything that is put forward as reform doesn't really address the underlying problem that it is supposed to resolve.

Most of those leading the mindless charge in all directions for a better public education system really don't think too much about whatever latest panacea they are ardently proposing to long failed public education. This is because they too are the products of the same lousy education system that they are trying to fix, which leaves them without the educated acumen necessary to understand whether what they are proposing really fixes anything.

One such hollow reform is merit pay, because it too is a non-cure for what ails failing students. If one doesn't think too much, the idea of merit pay is initially appealing in its simplicity. You pay teachers more money who successfully raise their failing students academic achievement. The only problem is that it doesn't work.

Even though the present system at LAUSD has created many bad teachers, they are not the reason why students have been allowed to fall hopelessly behind by the time they reach middle and high school. Misguided LAUSD policy that continues to allow social promotion, grade inflation, and no discipline are, but Cortines and Company steadfastly refuse to address these issues while continuing to get behind badly thought out ideas like merit pay.

In "Teachers, Performance Pay, and Accountability: What Education Should Learn from Other Sectors", researchers Scott J. Adams, John S. Heywood and Richard Rothstein examine the evidence that underlies these assumptions, concluding that the use of merit pay systems has negative consequences that often block the larger goal of improving the quality of services. Daniel Pink, author of the best selling book, "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us", has a great presentation discussing what motivates skilled labor people to do excellent work and surprisingly, it isn't money.

"The three reasons that people are motivated to do excellent work according to Pink are:

  • they are aligned with the purpose of the job
  • they are given some autonomy on the job
  • they are supported in gaining mastery of the job"

Probably the best argument against merit pay is to look how Pink's factors of motivation presently work in their functional equivalent at LAUSD. In LAUSD top/down culture, it becomes very clear to those teachers who don't just quit within 5 years as 50% do, that upward mobility is nonexistent for those foolish enough to remain in the classroom:

  • they cannot align the purpose of their jobs as teachers, because their is no administrative support to implement the necessary factors necessary to do so.
  • they are given no autonomy on the job and more and more are required to teach programed lessons that in no way take into account the students actual academic level.
  • they have no support from administration in gaining mastery of the job, because administration is solely concerned with Average Daily Attendance and maintaining the jobs that go along with it.

At LAUSD, those who presently escape from the classroom to become coaches, coordinators, or administrators do so almost exclusively for more money and less work. No matter what educational platitudes they spout, they wind up doing less and less work as they move up the food chain at LAUSD, where it is always a good bet that 9 times out of 10 when you call these education leaders, they will either be in a meeting to fashion an agenda for the meeting about the colloquium for lofty and always nebulous ideas like merit pay. If you are a teacher who makes the mistake of asking them how merit pay will actually function, they will probably respond by asking you to write them a memo about merit pay as administrators are always adept at making others work, so that they can attend yet another meeting that will hopefully be catered.

The complex problems posed by students who have been moved from grade to grade year after year will not be solved with the unrealistic notion that some wunderkind teacher can undo this damage that has taken so long to inflict on students who deserved much better treatment from the beginning. All it will do is establish yet another misguided program that clearly has no chance of success because it fails to honestly define what the problem is in the first place. 


Wow, we actually agree on something, how about that!!

LAUSD wants to use test scores to evaluate teachers—they don’t know

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