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(Update: Adding information about district, clarifying sourcing of quote)

During the campaign, President Trump said “it is time” for merit pay for teachers. In Florida, the Orange County Public School district thinks otherwise, declaring a years-long experiment with performance pay a failure.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, a report by the district, given to the Central Florida Public School Boards Coalition, says plainly: “Performance pay systems are not an effective way to increase student achievement,” the report concluded. The paper wrote:

If they were, there would be consistent improvements since the law went into effect.

Instead, Orange’s fourth-graders have shown declining performance in language arts while its sixth graders have gotten better in that subject. And its third graders have posted flat scores in math, year after year.

On national tests, Florida’s eighth-graders have done worse, in both math and reading, since the law’s passage.

Experiments with merit pay for teachers have been tried for decades, but there is no evidence that they work in improving student performance. Florida, starting under the 1999-2007 administration of former governor Jeb Bush, has been at the forefront of the movement, requiring that districts implement a performance pay plan by 2003 — but there wasn’t a great deal of district buy-in because there was no state funding for the program.  In 2011, Republican Gov. Rick Scott passed a new law changing the way teaches were evaluated — with 50 percent linked to student standardized test scores — and creating a performance-based pay system as well as ending job protections.

The Sentinel reported that officials in Orange County — which is the ninth largest school district in the United States (excluding Hawaii, which is a single district for the entire state) — want the law changed and plan to share the report with Florida legislators.

Diane Ravitch, an education historian before she became a prominent anti-corporate school reform advocate, has written extensively about merit pay, noting in this 2010 piece:

One of the signature issues of business people 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.

Here’s how Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania teacher who writes the lively Curmudgucation blog, sarcastically describes the “allure” of Florida — with its evaluation and pay policies — to prospective teachers in a passage he took from a 2010 Economist piece:

HEY THERE, talented recent university graduate! I’d like to offer you a job in an extremely challenging and rewarding field. The pay is based almost entirely on performance metrics — you know, what they used to call “commission” in the old days. The better you do, the more you earn! Of course the worse you do, the less you earn, but don’t focus on that — you’re a winner, you’ll do great. We can offer you a five-year contract to start. By “contract” I mean we’ll let you work for us, if things work out, but we can of course fire you at any time. And after that you’ll have solid contracts! Each contract lasts one year, and we can decide to let you go at the end if you’re not performing up to our standards. And by that time, you’ll be earning … well, actually, you’ll be paid at exactly the same rate as when you started out. We’re prohibited by law from paying you more just because you’ve worked for us longer. If, however, you want to go get qualified in some new technical field or obtain an advanced degree, then … we can’t raise your pay either. We basically just pay you a flat standardized commission depending on how well you perform on the mission.

The mission is to train 18 to 25 children to correctly fill out the answers on a series of standardized tests. You have no control over which children will be assigned to you, and unlike other commission-based workers (door-to-door salesmen, say), you will be stuck with the ones you’re handed for the whole year. Average salary is $45,000 a year, but if you work your butt off and get lucky with the kids who are assigned to you, you could push it to, oh, $60,000.