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It Sounds Good, So Spare Me The Details

On the Bridging Differences blog, Diane Ravitch addresses the idea of merit pay plans in education and makes this simple point on why they consistently fail.

Note that they assume that most people–in this case, teachers–are lazy and need a promise of dollars to be incentivized to get higher scores for their students. It never seems to occur to them that many people are doing their best (think people who play sports, always striving to do their best without any expectation of payment) and continue to do so because of intrinsic rewards or because of an innate desire to serve others.

Over the past eight years, No Child Left Behind has clearly demonstrated that the carrot-and-stick-approach (NCLB is 90% stick) did nothing to improve American education.

Now the carrot side is popular, despite studies showing “performance incentives” don’t work (outside of education as well), and not a few trial runs that crapped out.

Merit pay, like charter schools and standardized testing, is popular with many politicians and other education “experts” because it’s simple, relatively cheap, and easy to implement.

It starts with a premise that is easy to sound bite and seems logical.  Or it seems logical if you don’t think about the concept for more than a minute or so.

In other words, these are education reform proposals tailor made for our shoot from the gut, short attention span, simplistic approach to governing this country.


  1. Dave

    I think the main challenge of merit pay is that it’s pretty impossible to use it to fix a dysfunctional system, because a dysfunctional system can’t correctly identify who to give merit pay to!

  2. Tim

    Good point, Dave. However, the biggest dysfunction of our education system is the continuing public image of the teacher as a solitary figure, working in the isolation of a classroom, and the only person responsible for the learning of the kids assigned to them.

    It isn’t that way in the schools I work with and it shouldn’t be the situation in any school. So, if you’re going to do a merit pay program, it needs to reward everyone in a school (or at least on a team) who contributes to improvement of student learning.

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