First Person

Why Bother with Merit Pay?

What is the point of merit pay for teachers? Isn’t that the first question we should be asking? And then, given that answer, do we think that it will work? Let’s take a look!

(Let me be clear here: for the sake of this discussion, I am talking about some sort of compensation structure by which individual teachers get bonuses and/or raises based on their own students’ performance on some sort of test or measure.)

One possible reason to adopt merit pay is that it seems more just, in a way. That is, it would be only be fair if better teachers should be paid more money. I mean, who wouldn’t think that better teachers — even if by “better teachers” we mean “teachers who get better results” — deserve more money? We could argue about which outcomes and measures are meaningful, but the basic idea has a lot of appeal.

There is another big potential reason to adopt merit pay — a far more compelling possibility. If a merit pay program would somehow lead to improved outcomes, who would oppose such a thing? But I wonder if that result is even plausible, given the realities and details that so many people want to ignore. So, let’s think about what the theory of action (i.e. how/why such programs lead to the desired outcomes) might be. How could a merit pay program lead to improved outcomes? I have three big questions.

1) My first question about any merit pay program would have to be, “Where is the money going to come from?” Obviously, that is related to “How big a program are we talking about?”

There are lots of reason to building large program, covering many teachers and with large bonuses (see below). However, this runs up against a problem that is not seen in most other industries. You see, better teaching – even better outcomes – does not produce the revenue to pay for these bonuses. A better salesperson will generate greater revenue, revenue than can be used to pay for his/her bonus. A more efficient repairperson can cover more repairs, saving the employer on headcount, thus economically justifying a bonus. But what about a better teacher?

The public schools already have enormous market share. More importantly, additional students drawn from private schools do not generate additional revenue. Additional student drawn from charter schools generate less than average revenue. So, where would the money come from?

Washington, D.C., appears to be on the brink of starting a large new merit pay program. However, it is being paid for with private funds. What happens when those grants run out? New York City’s public school system is 25 times the size of D.C.’s. Are there private grants that would pay for an equivalent program in NYC? This is simply not a scalable solution, neither as a long term solution nor as a broad solution for many districts.

2) My next question is, “How much money will it take to alter the behavior of existing teachers?”

That is one of the basic principles of merit pay programs, right? That is, by providing monetary incentives, teachers will work differently than they would otherwise. Well, would what it take?

We already know that teachers are not particularly sensitive to monetary incentive. After all, they chose to go into a famously low-paying profession, one without enormous financial upside. (Yes, given decades of experience and very advanced degrees, they can make over $100,000 in some districts, but that amount of experience and education yields far greater compensation in other fields.) There are decades of research to back this up — research that shows that teachers are not particularly motivated by financial rewards. We should, therefore, expect them to need even larger bonuses to alter behavior in education than in other fields.

But we are still missing a theory of action. There is a still a black box or underwear gnomes scenario (i.e. a situation in which a key step that is never explored or explained). If teachers do not know what to do to be better, how is paying them bonuses going to help solve that problem? If, on the other hand, teachers know but are too lazy to do what it takes, how is offering these already lazy and monetarily insensitive folks bonuses going to change that? How is the possibility of bonuses going to alter behavior?

I think that this line of thinking contains the most common mistake people who support merit pay make. They confuse how they might respond to such a structure with how others might respond. People in finance are accustomed to a large bonus component of their compensation, and they believe that this system works. However, the people who have gone into that industry already knew that going in. This is a system that works for them. But teachers did not go into such a system, and clearly were not looking for even the possibility of massive compensation. Why expect them to respond like people in finance might?

I am not suggesting that there is not some level of bonus that would alter behavior. Rather, I am asking what it is, or what the rational basis for determining it might be. Is there a research basis for establishing the size of these bonuses? Is there even a logic behind the setting of merit pay bonuses for teachers beyond “This is how much money we have raised”?

3) My last big question is, “How much money would it take to significantly alter the composition of the teacher pool?”

There are many who believe that we have the wrong people in teaching — that we need harder workers or smarter people, or whatever. Many of them are merit pay proponents, and they see such programs as attracting more of the right people to the classroom.

An argument that I have heard quite a few times suggests that some people choose not go into teaching because they resent the idea of not being rewarded for their excellence. This argument suggests that what is important to them is being recognized as being better than their colleagues. I suppose that I have some sympathy for this argument. After all, who does not want their accomplishments recognized? But that is not the same thing as insisting that one’s recognition come in the form of a check! Is anyone seriously suggesting that making $100 bonuses available to the best teachers will significantly alter the pool of teachers? That is simply a laughable suggestion, right? If recognition of excellence is important, that can be addressed in ceremonies, announcements and/or public bulletins, and done far less expensively than merit pay programs while offering far greater inventive than small checks.

I understand that there are many people who never consider going into teaching, or who rule it out, because of the level of compensation. But small or even moderate bonuses are not going to change that. I understand that people want to be rewarded for their hard work and accomplishments, and some people expect more money for that than others. So, again, how large would the bonuses have to be, and how many would have to be available, to alter the career decisions of a significant number of people?

For example, if a teacher could potentially double his/her first year salary, but only one one out of a thousand teachers would get the bonus, would that possibility attract a lot of new applicants?

4) My last question is really a composite of the first three. “If the money available for such a program is neither enough to alter behaviors nor attract new people to teaching, isn’t merit pay just a way to reward existing high performers? And how does that actually improve our schools?”

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.