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Jun. 2 2010 - 3:23 pm | 434 views | 1 recommendation | 7 comments

Did Chicago’s merit pay system fail or did it fail teachers?

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Chicago’s two-year experiment with giving teachers merit pay has yielded poor results. No school improvements, no rising test scores. It’s causing some to write off merit pay as an option entirely, saying it just doesn’t work.

I was disappointed too, until I got to the second page of the Tribune article on the study, released Tuesday. Take a look at these details:

Technical difficulties prevented linking student test scores to individual teachers. That meant assessments focused instead on the entire school’s performance in the first year and across individual grade levels in the second year. In addition, average bonuses ended up being about half of what teachers were expected to get.

Are you kidding me here? The bonuses were not linked to their individual results, but to the results as a school or grade level? And they didn’t even get all the money that was promised?

Merit pay isn’t the problem. It’s this pilot program that was a joke.

Incentives work on this very simple principle: given the opportunity to get something I want, I will work harder.

Merit pay is supposed to be a capitalist idea, but here it’s being imposed in a downright socialist manner. If Mrs. Jones next door is a lousy teacher, she’s going to keep me from getting my bonus. And since I know she can’t be bothered to work harder, why should I?

I have to imagine many teachers were skeptical of the program in the first place. But if those who gave it a try weren’t even given the rewards they were promised, who in their right mind is going to continue with the program? If you offer me $12 an hour, and end up paying me $6.50, I’m not showing up for work tomorrow. Teachers already have a hard enough job. They need us to keep our promises.

And here’s the biggest flaw with incentive systems: they assume that people know how to get better at their job.

I’ve quoted this study before when talking about anti-poverty incentive programs, but it’s worth citing again. School programs that paid students for doing well only work on things the kids can control. Paying kids for their grades assumes that the kids know how to do better, and that’s simply not the case. When you incentivize something they can control – like their behavior or attendance – then you see a marked improvement.

This program assumes that teachers know how to do better and are just lazy slobs who don’t care. The article doesn’t mention coaching or training or education. It just leaves teachers to decide how to do better.

While there are always some lazy hangers-on in any system, I think most teachers want their kids to succeed and are doing their best to make that happen. But without help, we’re putting incentives on something they can’t necessarily control – the behavior of their colleagues and their own background.

One school did do well in the program – Sumner Math and Science Academy on the far West side. But Sumner did more than just hope the bonuses might work:

One recent TAP-related meeting at Sumner found fourth- and fifth-grade teachers congregated around a large desk as a lead teacher, Jacqueline Karriem, offered a lesson titled “Characteristics of Locating Text Examples.”

They shared tactics in the classroom while Karriem, a national board certified teacher, took notes. She managed an efficient operation, with a timer sounding every few minutes to mark the progression of the lesson plan.

The practice allows teachers to collaborate weekly and review the same material at the same time, a real-time benefit that allows them to be on the same page when discussing curriculum, said Principal Delores Robinson.

This school gave teachers the skills they needed to succeed and then rewarded them for putting those skills into practice.

So, is the program being redesigned? Nope. It’s just being dumped. Poorly designed, poor results. Is it any wonder it failed?

Again, we’ve failed teachers and, in turn, their students. What do we do? Shrug our shoulders and move on.

Better luck next time.


3 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 7 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    Nice article. Similarly, employees of companies that give a bonus to the department if the department achieves as a whole makes the incentive worthless if the culture of the team isn’t constructive or collaborative. But merit pay is the way to go (similar to structure in Belgium), but I think we should take it a step further (like in Belgium): Let the tax payers decide where to send their money (i.e. kids) as opposed to where the school officials give the incentives. This is the only way to encourage teachers to band together and create a team-like culture and improve the school, thereby improving test scores. If parents/students had a free choice in their education and not limited to the districts they’ve been zoned to, failing schools would quickly shape up. *Scratch that* As long as the Unions have a position of power and of leverage, Merit pay via the tax payer and Unions will never work together. Thanks for letting me share, Megan.

  2. collapse expand

    Obviously, the problem was that the people implementing the merit pay system weren’t themselves given merit pay to implement it properly.

  3. collapse expand

    Good idea: let’s hire teachers for $60,000-70,000
    and call it a retainer fee……and then pay them some real money to show up and teach

  4. collapse expand

    Ms. Cottrell,

    It seems to me that merit pay is solution in search of a problem. The problems faced by teachers, students, parents, and schools are not addressed by merit pay. Students are not widgets whose production can be increased by motivating the factory workers to be more productive. One of the biggest problems is teacher burn-out, a huge number of new teachers do not last the first five years. It is simply too stressful. This is not addressed by giving some of them a one time bonus in pay. What would help is smaller class sizes. Similarly there is a problem with school budget volatility. One year there is money and the next year no one can buy books. Bonuses don’t help that either.

    Bonuses are a total fifth solution.

  5. collapse expand

    Way to guarantee failure CPS. This is like my company telling me, hey, we’ll give you a bonus if every office across the country improves sales by X amount. And I sit in Chicago, but I have no chance of impacting sales in Kansas City or Sacramento. (Sadly, most professional services firms have been doing this very thing during the recession. And now watch the exodus begin…)

    CPS should have deferred the pilot program until they could fix those “technical difficulties.” Come on. They couldn’t find a bunch of social science grad students at U of C or Northwestern to help them design their experiment? Epic fail.

  6. collapse expand

    Eric Zorn posted a video about incentives that is incredibly relevant: http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2010/06/lecture.html

    The results of TAP aren’t enough by themselves to throw out merit pay, but it seems to me that it adds to the already numerous reasons against it.

  7. collapse expand

    Hi Megan,

    I’m afraid there are A LOT of problems with merit pay, both in terms of the measurability of learning and in how people are really motivated. We’re also assuming that teachers are purposefully not teaching as well as they could, simply because they’re not making a few thousand dollars more. That’s simply not true. I suggest checking out the links below for more information on my points.



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    About Me

    I'm a journalist living in Chicago writing about poverty and public housing. I don't come from the streets - I grew up on a farm. But I'm passionate about urban issues and getting to know people who are completely different from me. I'm quirky, funny and friendly.

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