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Past Performance Might Predict Future Returns

Larry Cuban looks at one of the current hot topics in education reform, merit pay for teachers (what he calls “pay for performance”), and reminds everyone that there’s nothing new here.

In touting pay-for-performance plans, federal and state decision-makers fail to point out (or ignore) past efforts to link teacher performance to money that have been a series of disasters plainly seen by those who know their history. In fact, an honest reformer’s advice to would-be buyers of these schemes would be: The lousy record of pay-for-performance plans does, indeed, predict the future. [his emphasis]

Consider England in the late-19th century, the history of merit pay plans since the 1920s, and U.S. performance contracting in the 1960s. Using cash to spur teachers to get students to learn more, faster, and better, these plans stumbled repeatedly in narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, and sowing distrust among teachers and administrators. Ultimately, policymakers abandoned the plans. Few researchers and knowledgeable policymakers would dispute these previous failed efforts.

Back in the early 90’s our overly-large school district tried a merit pay scheme.

And while I personally benefited from the program (full disclosure: I enjoyed having the extra cash! :-), overall it was a major waste, time as well as money, and did nothing to improve learning.

Paying individual teachers for the performance (aka higher standardized test scores) of students currently sitting in their classrooms is wrong in so many ways.

It ignores the educators who worked with the kids in past years as well as the other staff members in the school who are contributing to their learning now.

Much worse than that, it reinforces the traditional concept of the teacher as an independent contractor, working in isolation, solely and completely responsible for the learning of the children assigned to them.

Cuban is right that the current salary system used in most school systems, one where everyone gets the same based on the arbitrary factors of longevity and continuing education credits, is wrong.

However, any new system needs to get beyond the view of teaching as an individual process and focus on the collaborative effort that goes into any child’s education.


  1. Tom

    Clearly we do a poor job teaching history. Same mistakes over and over.

  2. Clairvoy

    I thought you covered this rather well with your post using the Ted video of Pink.

    What you missed in your post, it ignores the educators who spend all their time in Title One Schools, in which many students have just entered the United States. Last year we had a student arrive a week before standardized tests began from Honduras. He had to take the test and his scores were counted! Is that a fair assessment of our teachers? Ridiculous!

  3. Neil

    The other issue I see is that not every teacher teaches a standardized test class. World history at my school has a set of standards that the state released, but there is no state exam to test those standards. Some of the best teachers in my department could be teaching world history, and they’ll never see an extra dime.

    I suppose you could always make every class finish with a state test, but who on earth has the money to pay for them?

    Terrible idea.

  4. Michael

    IMHO the big issue here is that we are confusing merit-based pay with test-scores-based pay. Do I have problems with raises being tied to test scores? Yes. But what if merit-based pay was determined by a panel of teachers and outside specialists who evaluated each teacher during their regular evaluation cycle? (In my district, every 3 years). It could include test scores as one small part of determining if someone is truly an exceptional teacher, as well as conferences with their team members, and even interviews of former students and parents.

    (Full Disclosure: I’m not a teacher, I’m an IT specialist, I just work in the schools)

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