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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 09/29/2010

Ravitch: The long, failed history of merit pay and how the Ed Department ignores it

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by education historian Diane Ravitch on her Bridging Differences blog, which she co-authors with Deborah Meier on the Education Week website.

Ravitch and Meier exchange letters about what matters most in education. Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, is the author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” an important critique of the flaws in the modern school reform movement.

One of the signature issues of businesspeople and conservative Republicans for the past 30 years has been merit pay. They believe in competition, and they believe that financial rewards can be used to incentivize better performance, so it seems natural for them to conclude that merit pay or performance pay would incentivize teachers to produce better results.

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. Teachers should certainly be well compensated, but not many enter the classroom with money as their primary motivation.

Although teachers need and want higher pay, they are strongly opposed to individual merit pay. They know that it destroys the collaboration and teamwork that are essential to the culture of the school. They know this even though few of them are familiar with the work of W. Edwards Deming, the business guru, who warned American business against ratings and merit pay. (See Andrea Gabor’s The Man Who Discovered Quality, Chapter 9.) Deming said it nourishes rivalry and short-term planning, while undermining morale and long-term planning.

Few people realize that merit pay schemes have been tried again and again since the 1920s.

Belief in them waxes and wanes, but the results have never been robust.

Now we have the findings of the most thorough trial of teacher merit pay, conducted by first-rate economists at Vanderbilt University's National Center for Performance Incentives. Many people expected that this trial would show positive results because the bonus for getting higher scores was so large: Teachers in the treatment group could get up to $15,000 for higher scores.

After a three-year trial, the researchers concluded that the teachers in the treatment group did not get better results than those in the control group, who were not in line to get a bonus. There was a gain for 5th graders in the treatment group, but it washed out in 6th grade.

Bottom line: Merit pay made no difference. Teachers were working as hard as they knew how, whether for a bonus or not.

But to what effect? The very next day after the release of the Nashville study, the U.S. Department of Education handed out many millions of dollars for merit-pay programs across the country and announced its intention to spend $1.2 billion on merit pay.

Ideology trumps evidence. The enduring puzzle is why the Obama administration clings so fiercely to the GOP philosophy of incentives and sanctions as the levers for change, despite lack of evidence for their efficacy.



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By Valerie Strauss  | September 29, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Diane Ravitch, Guest Bloggers, Performance pay, Teacher assessment, Teachers  | Tags:  $1.2 billion and merit pay, diane ravitch, education department and merit pay, merit pay, merit pay study, performance pay, ravitch book, study on performance pay, vanderbilt study  
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They do this because it is easy to do. Not that the merit pay ideas are well designed, or anything, but it's a band-aid for the serious issues with education that no one wants to tackle.

Poor teaching is one of those issues, as are poor administrators, kids from families that either don't value education or parents are too busy to support their kids, schools that aren't teaching kids what they want and need (as in vocational education for kids who don't want to go to college).

All of the issues above are hard to fix. Demonizing teachers as lazy and "rewarding" good ones is easy. Obama's administration prefers easy because they have other things that are a higher priority to them.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | September 29, 2010 7:24 AM | Report abuse

"Although teachers need and want higher pay, they are strongly opposed to individual merit pay."

Even the teachers in DC were happy to get merit pay written into their contracts!!!

And as a bonus, school systems that have merit pay also (usually) have a vehicle to remove the poor performing teachers.

PS-Your sports analogy is ridiculous...sports are about competition where there are winners and losers.

Posted by: biff_t84 | September 29, 2010 7:40 AM | Report abuse

"Few people realize that merit pay schemes have been tried again and again since the 1920s. Belief in them waxes and wanes, but the results have never been robust."

Diane Ravitch trots this one out every chance she gets. It's one of her favorite in a long line of half truths she espouses to secure her arguments for or against the latest ed reform strategy (most always, against, even though she never offers any viable solutions herself).

Merit pay has been tried repeatedly since the 1920's but with little to no success. What she fails to mention however is that today's technology is just a fraction more sophisticated than what was available over the past century. Many states are currently in the process of installing competent data systems capable of tracking student tests scores over time and linking them to their specific teachers. This stuff wasn't available during Woodrow Wilson's presidency, not even Bill Clinton's but it's up and running now. She won't raise that part of the discussion though because it would be an inconvenient truth against her droning on and on against anything counter to the status quo - which she seems to embrace.

She's managed to capture quite an audience though with all the half truths she has formulated.

Posted by: phoss1 | September 29, 2010 8:04 AM | Report abuse

"Ideology trumps evidence. The enduring puzzle is why the Obama administration clings so fiercely to the GOP philosophy of incentives and sanctions as the levers for change, despite lack of evidence for their efficacy."

Hmmm, perhaps Wall St. mentality ushered along by the new business model of education, misguided leadership qualities -making a decison and sticking with it (regardless of the facts), or just plain simple minded illogic.

Posted by: shadwell1 | September 29, 2010 8:13 AM | Report abuse

to biff: You are wrong about teachers in DCPS. Only about half the teachers even voted at all for the contract--hardly an overwhelming mandate in support of merit pay. Most who voted "yes" are the younger TFA and DCTF teachers Rhee has brought in. They are in it for about 2 years so they want the money now. There's dedication and caring for you!

The rest of us are in it for the long haul and while we enjoy the pay increase if you asked us most of us would have preferred better working conditions and to be treated like real professionals over a pay increase.

As for the sports analogy, I agree with it. I believe she's speaking about young people playing sports, not professional athletes who are grossly overpaid.

Yes, you learn about winning and losing when you play sports as a young person, but you also learn about team work, getting along with others, socialization, strategizing and improving your own athletic abilities. When I played sports as a young person I also learned to help out and pick up the slack for others on the team who might not have had as good an athletic ability as others on the team. Lots can be learned from playing sports when you're young. It's not all about winners and losers. A good lesson which has served me well in life.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | September 29, 2010 8:53 AM | Report abuse


Many states are in the process of tracking teachers, this is true. However, the Dept. of Education did a study that showed that approximately 25-30% of all teachers would be evaluated in the wrong quartile just due to measurement error (which drops to about 15% over three years of data). Note, this does not take into account all of the other factors that might affect scores, JUST measurement error.

I suppose that driving 10% or so of your effective or average teachers out of the workforce each year could work, but good luck finding replacements.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | September 29, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Nuns were able to teach and have students achieve at high levels without merit pay.

Posted by: edlharris | September 29, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

edharris- Because nuns were able to discipline students and since the schools were mostly private they could expel students for repeated behavior problems etc.

Schools today have no effective discipline policy. I believe in keeping my problems in my own class but every once in a while you just get a problem you can't solve. We need more specialized programs to address constant behavior problems - including vo-tech programs for students who are not academically inclined.

Posted by: Bramblerose | September 29, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse


Glad that you had such wonderful memories of your team sports as a youth. To highlight the other side....when my brother played football in HS, when metal cleats were still allowed, I still recall wondering how a decent coach could yell at the kids on his team to "cleat him," meaning get whichever player from the other team out of the game. Metal cleats tore up and down the leg in such a way that the kid wasn't only out of the game, but usually needed medical care. One situation? No. There are tennis elbow issues, bad knees on catchers and others, pitchers' arms thrown out by overuse and bad technique that help win games but kill arms of youth, football players encouraged to "beef up" (250 lbs. or so), dehydradion and electrolyte problems (due to infrequent water breaks sometimes resulting in death; my brother was given salt tablets; two kids across town died during his 10th grade season), concussions of which recent research is finding to be widescale and sometimes lifelong, and on and on.

Of course, winning is nearly everything to some coaches since their livelihoods, current and future, depend on winning ratios. Often, the kids are exploited phycially and emotionally. So a kid drops the ball or makes some human error or whatever and is made the scapegoat of the coach's wrath in the locker room, humiliated. Academically, kids in school sports often must burn lots of midnight oil in order to maintain high grades, especially when taking honors/advanced courses. Sometimes coaches dance around regulations on off season play and extended practice whenever they can. And then there is the weight room.....

When kids do decide to no longer play a team sport in school, they are often touted as quiters (think Lombardi stuff). So what if the kids want to take several advanced courses (or work a part-time job to save for college) and decide they don't have time for the sport - they still may be disgraced for "letting the team down" and the like.

In my dreamworld - sports just for fun and exercise. Sure - strategy, teamwork, rules, let even the lesser athletic types see some game time, win some, lose some, no major stress, and as a bonus, keep your integrity, bones, bodily organs, and brain cells intact.

Posted by: shadwell1 | September 29, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Shadwell - interesting portrayal of the dark side of competitive sports.

It sort of reminds me of how teachers are being treated - and are expected to act - these days. They are expected to beat up on themselves and others in order to win the prize - high test scores and merit pay.

Posted by: efavorite | September 29, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

I like your statement about "misguided leadership qualities". I notice that some leaders are praised because they are decisive or have a sense of urgency.

But no one ever seems to care that the decisions are actually errors.

I agree with Diane Ravitch that there is and "enduring puzzle" here. I am starting to suspect that Obama had a few bad teachers who didn't expect much of him. Just an idea.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 29, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Richmond VA PS went from one of the worst school districts in Virginia to one of the best, even outperforming wealthy Fairfax County, in 10 years by using teacher committees to adopt appropriate, evidence-based curriculum, focusing on improving working and learning conditions and teacher retention. No merit-pay, no mass firings, not threats, no TFA's; also no media attention. The hard work done by true education professionals (like Diane Ravitch) does not make an interesting story.

Posted by: mcstowy | September 29, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Last week, the teacher next door to me called a parent to tell her that her 1st grader had mistakenly taken home the backpack of another student. (They both looked alike.)

The mother of the child whose backpack was accidently taken by the wrong student wanted her daughter's backpack to help her with her homework and volunteered to pick it up.

The mother who was called because her daughter had taken the wrong backpack home told the teacher she wouldn't be seeing her daughter until after 9:00 p.m. and couldn't care less about the mistake since her daughter never opened her backpack at night anyway.

We can discuss and reshape the discussion...but, the point is a $1,000,000 merit pay incentive for the teacher would not help this little girl, with the uncaring parent, succeed. And the apathy of the parent about the girl's schoolwork would never be reflected in the "data" collected determining whether or not this teacher was effective and earned an incentive bonus.

Posted by: ilcn | September 29, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse

Denying merit pay is the ultimate in foolishness. It's not that "Teachers were working as hard as they knew how, whether for a bonus or not." No one, not even the most die hard union supporter believes *all* teachers were working as hard as they could. Surely some are working less hard than others, just as people are in all professions.

Motivation to be recognized for achievement is universal. Money is one symbol of that. Deming also said, "Experience by itself teaches nothing". Yet, union rules would have us pay teachers more money merely by the years of experience they have.

Surely attempting to pay better teachers more money is at least an indication that some one cares.

Posted by: staticvars | September 29, 2010 10:05 PM | Report abuse

Please show the data and research demonstrating the "long, failed" history of merit pay. This single study about "bonuses" certainly does not demonstrate anything about merit pay. Merit pay has many purposes, the primary of which is to pay for performance (as do most professional jobs in this country) and to ATTRACT talent to the field. The bonus study says nothing of the merits of merit pay for attracting better qualified teachers to the field. Given teh strong correlation between teacher characteristics and student outcomes, in the long term, it is quite reasonable to expect that an improved pool of teachers will lead to improved student outcomes. We all know there is variation in performance among teachers, as there is in many fields. Why shouldn't teachers be properly compensated across the board for their difficult jobs, and even more greatly if they are especially high performing? I need to read it to confirm, but it is also possible that the bonus study was too short-term to result in changes in what types of teachers were attracted to the schools. perhaps this study does show that money can't change an ineffective teacher into an effective one. what it definitely does not prove is that merit pay doesn't work. It may very well work, but will likely do so through different means.

Posted by: think75 | September 29, 2010 10:59 PM | Report abuse

Part of the problem is everything is based on one standardized test score. As the Vanderbilt study showed, even with the more sophisticated tracking of today (phoss1) and the offering of as much as $15,000, scores still did not improve. Business practices do not translate into better schools.

The other problem I have, (and I am not a teacher) is during this bash public education week, why was there such little air time given to the people who are in the classroom every day. It seemed every time you turned on your television set you were greeted by some non-educator being passed off as an expert. If I had cancer I sure as hell would not be calling Bill Gates for a cure. And Johnny Legend wouldn't be first on my wish list to perform my open heart surgery. So why the need to water down the discussion on education. Apparently money and fame are valued more than substance, experience, and dedication.

Posted by: jwchr1 | September 30, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

I agree with everything Diane Ravitch says here.

My advice for the day:

Read Ravitch often.

Oppose Obama's education plan often.

Do both with - ALERT!!! buzzword for these (loathsome) times -->> - "rigor!"

Posted by: NYCee | September 30, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse

MERIT PAY: Another (Obama education) Clunker for Cash. (Sigh!)

There is this strange notion being spread about (by business types mostly - our only education "experts" these days) that there are these throngs of "experts" in various subject areas who would be these really great teachers, and they would exit the wings and they would enter center stage and teach their magic... IF ONLY...

we would pay them oodles of dollars.

What makes Obama think experts in a field are therefore expert teachers of that field? What makes him think there are all these experts out there who would make superb teachers IF ONLY we would pay them huge sums of money? What makes him think they want to teach? With all the job entails, I'd bet many of them wouldnt.

As Diane said, most folks who teach really like to teach. They did it when the pay was crap and theyre doing it when (in more places now) the pay is better.

I cant believe Obama really taught. He must have dazzled his students with his speechy magic or something. He seems to have no clue what teaching is really about, at least not in grades K-12.

Teaching is an ART. Teaching, in most cases in the real world, or the one Obama wants to "reform", is managing to employ that art despite the myriad of anti-teacher-as-artist monkey wrenches and gears of bureaucracy the teacher must dance amongst. I hate to sound all outside the data force field and all, but you really do have be able to think holistically, as well - to get thru to folks.

Artists, as in paint palette or dancer types, well, if they are true artists, they make their art whether they have money or not. They cant help themselves. And so it goes with teachers. True teachers.

This is not to say most artists would prefer to struggle in a garret with bread and water, or papers to grade, as in the case of the teacher. But teachers' salaries have gotten much better over time in many areas (I know there are those places that still dont pay well enough, and that goes for benefits, too...). This is really all people want who arent in something for the money but for the love of it - they want a decent living, with security, and the ability to do what they like. You know, like the middle class USED to be in this country.

Obama is actually making it much harder to be a great teacher - for teachers to practice their art, feel their spirit-muse, and use their imagination and creativity. He may actually, if he stays in the teacher-"improvement"-business (I do stress BUSINESS, here), lose many more excellent teachers than he gains, by his hokey, stupid, and, frankly, soulless education ideas, like Merit Pay.

Gawd. I knew he wasnt that good, just didnt think he'd be THIS bad!!!

PS - Very community organizer at heart, no? Lol. That must have been for him what drive by service in disadvantaged public schools is for many TFAers... a nice piece of fluff for the old CV! At least it's easy to imagine that... given his actions.


Posted by: NYCee | September 30, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

There's 'merit', and then there's 'merit'... Having worked in a large firm during my corporate penance early in my career, 'merit' is most often attributed to people who have no 'merit' at all, but rather kiss ass like there's no tomorrow,... with only their 'likeability' and lack of integrity to exhibit 'merit' to bosses. 'Merit' most often isn't 'merit' at all, but rather a willingness to sell one's soul to the company store, in return for a few shekels, and at the expense of far more talented people who refuse to brownnose for so little in return. People like Michelle Rhee wouldn't exist but for the brownnosers, for she has cultivated fear rather than respect and cooperation/collaboration. She is what happens when incompetent people rise to the seats of authority, even a little authority, and it is small wonder she is being booed and booted on so vast a public stage, despite the propaganda offered by WAITING/SUPERMAN and the extraordinary corporate hype associated with this lousy film. But karma is a stern taskmaster, and I wouldn't want ANYONE I knew to be on the recipient end of what's due to her... and to those who practice similar deceptions, like Geoffrey Canada, and Davis Guggenheim... These are NOT 'meritorious' people, and they deserve our contempt for the liars they are, rather than any semblance of laudatory praise.

Posted by: bbbbmer1 | September 30, 2010 7:35 PM | Report abuse

Well said, bbbbmer!

I like. :-)

Thank god we can go to blogs like this and hear from folks with their feet on the ground, sanity emitting from their typing fingers...

The endless onslaught of half-cocked babble from corporate, shrink-wrapped, bipartisan education "experts," happy soldiers in Obama's deform army, is beyond anything I imagined he would unleash upon us: Stupid, soulless, craven and destructive to the nth.

I knew he wasnt that good when I voted for him, but I had no idea he'd be THIS bad.

Those who hurt us dont deserve us.

No more votes for hurtful Dems from this gal.

I am done.

Posted by: NYCee | September 30, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse

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