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