A Silly Analogy
Edspresso links to this column by Danny Westneat, about merit pay for teachers. Westneat’s concern that teachers may favor short-term test results over long-term learning is a legitimate one. (For example, teachers would have a greater incentive to help their students cheat on assessments.) But the parallel he draws between merit pay for teachers and bonuses for CEOs had me rolling my eyes:
For Wall Street bankers, the gauge was profits or stock prices. For classroom teachers, it’s usually student test scores […] [O]n Wall Street it was a disaster.
Nobody suggests giving a teacher a million dollars if students’ test scores rise. The proposals I’ve seen involved bonuses of at most a few thousand dollars — a small fraction of a teacher’s salary. This isn’t like CEO bonuses; it’s more like giving tips or commissions in addition to salary, a type of pay structure that exists in many different professions without wreaking havoc.
Westneat asks why we have to “incentivize” the teaching profession. My answer is that we already do. It’s just that the current incentives don’t all contribute to student learning. The typical public school salary schedule rewards graduate degrees and seniority, not good teaching. So a dynamic young teacher earns less than an aging mediocre one. That’s probably responsible in part for the high attrition rate among young teachers. And a teacher who gets a master’s degree in theory receives a bigger reward than one who gains skills from practical workshops.
In fact, any professional faces a multitude of incentives on the job, not all of which even have to do with money. Instituting merit pay wouldn’t bring in an incentive where there used to be none. It would, however, slightly change the incentives that teachers face, and perhaps lead to better outcomes in the classroom.