The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

'Performance pay’ drove Denver teachers to strike -- and it is failing in other districts, too. A North Carolina teacher explains why it doesn’t work.

Teachers carry placards as they march in Denver on Monday. Denver teachers went on strike after failing to reach a deal with administrators on pay in the latest example of educator discontent, following a wave of walkouts over the past year. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Denver teachers are out on strike, protesting the system of performance pay -- also known as merit pay -- used by Denver Public Schools. Once widely supported in Denver, teachers now say the 14-year-old system is confusing and leaves them without knowing exactly how much money they will make each year.

Performance pay is one of those ideas that rises and fades in cycles of school reforms over decades. It may sound as if it makes sense — giving more money to teachers deemed the best — but research has repeatedly shown that it doesn’t work for a number of reasons.

In 2011, I ran this post by researcher Esther Quintero, who wrote:

The current teacher salary scale has come under increasing fire in the modern school reform area — and not without reason. Systems where people are treated more or less the same suffer from two basic problems. There will always be “free riders,” and relatedly, others may feel their contributions are not sufficiently recognized. So what are good alternatives? Based on decades worth of economic and psychological research, measures such as merit pay are not the answer.
Although individual pay for performance (or merit pay) is a widespread practice among U.S. businesses, the research on its effectiveness shows it to be of limited utility (see here, here, here, and here), mostly because it is easy for its benefits to be swamped by unintended consequences.

Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch has written about it repeatedly too:

It is curious that teachers vigorously oppose merit pay, even though they are the ones who are supposed to reap the rewards. What do they know? They know that merit pay undermines collaboration and teamwork. They know that it corrupts the culture of the school.

In this post, veteran North Carolina teacher Justin Parmenter explains why it isn’t working in North Carolina. Parmenter teaches seventh-grade language arts at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte. He is a fellow with Hope Street Group’s North Carolina Teacher Voice Network. He started his career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania and taught in Istanbul. He was a finalist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher of the year in 2016. This appeared on his blog (and he gave me permission to publish it). You can find him on Twitter here.

By Justin Parmenter

“I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.” -- Harvard economist Roland Fryer

A few years ago, Harvard University economist Roland Fryer set out to learn whether the New York City Department of Education’s distribution of $75 million to teachers who met performance targets in 200 high-need schools actually led to better outcomes for students. His research determined that it didn’t. Not only that, the department’s practice of dangling money in front of teachers may have even decreased achievement, by encouraging teaching to the test and damaging the collaboration so necessary for healthy school culture.

Here in North Carolina, performance pay has been creeping into education reforms as well.

Our principal pay system was recently overhauled after North Carolina’s ranking had slipped to an embarrassing 50th in the nation, with lawmakers vowing to “give more pay to principals who could move their schools to a higher performing level.”

The new system pays school leaders based on how much their students grew on standardized tests at the end of the year. It was enthusiastically supported by pro-business education reform organization Best NC, whose board includes influential millionaire GOP donor Art Pope.

The principal pay plan was so deeply flawed from its inception that it requires annual renewal of a hold harmless clause to prevent reductions in salary of up to $20,000 for some principals. Research clearly shows that having an effective principal in place is especially crucial in schools that serve our most disadvantaged students. Unfortunately, performance pay discourages principals from working in struggling schools where high staff turnover and other factors make consistent growth difficult to achieve.

Another move toward pay for performance was conceived by Sen. Phil Berger and included in our 2016 budget. Berger’s teacher bonus program initially offered sizable bonuses — potentially more than $9,000 — to third-grade reading teachers who were in the top 25 percent for reading growth on standardized test scores. Despite the financial incentive, those scores continue to drop, as they have ever since Berger’s Read to Achieve program was rolled out in 2013.

That trend didn’t stop legislators from expanding the program to include reading for grades 3-5 and math in grades 4-8 in addition to high school AP, IB, and CTE courses. This year a total of almost $39 million will be spent on the annually recurring teacher bonuses.

Paying educators based on their results probably sounds very reasonable to a corporate CEO, but a model that works for investment bankers simply doesn’t translate to the education setting. The idea that performance pay will improve learning outcomes is based on the premise that teachers aren’t working hard enough. And if you have a mental image of teachers sitting around the lounge with their feet up while their students toil over mimeographed worksheets, you clearly haven’t been in our schools. Public school teachers are among the hardest-working people you could ever hope to meet.

Best-selling author Daniel Pink notes how odd it is that we apply merit pay to teachers but not to other public servants. Why don’t we pay police officers based on how well they lower crime in the areas they patrol? Would we ever link soldiers’ compensation to border security? Pay public health workers using data on disease and death rates? Or do we recognize that there are far too many factors beyond their control for that approach to make sense?

In addition to its failure to improve student learning, there is another really important problem with performance pay. It gives our policymakers cover for not seriously addressing the lagging base pay which forces many teachers to work a second or third job just for the privilege of educating our children. Lawmakers can point to the millions of dollars spent to reward “good teachers” and avoid actually raising salary to a livable wage.

Meanwhile, N.C. teacher pay is mired in 37th place nationally, educator salaries are down 9.4 percent since 2009 when figures are adjusted for inflation, and we continue to lose teachers to neighboring states or to the private sector.

Rather than wasting taxpayer money on flawed compensation systems and bonuses that don’t help our students, let’s stop trying to apply logic that belongs in the corporate boardroom. Let’s work to make our state a place where the best and the brightest will want to come and teach. Let’s focus on treating all of North Carolina’s educators like the hard-working professionals they are.