Breaking News: Merit Pay Doesn't Work If You Don't Pay Good Teachers More


if everyone is special, then no one is

New York City just killed its merit pay program for teachers. The program was expensive—top performers were eligible for bonuses of $1,500 to $3,000, for a total of $56 million in outlays over the last three years—and it wasn't getting results. Despite the additional millions at stake, teachers in the schools where merit pay was available continued to do the same old stuff. Weird, right?

The New York press (and critics of merit pay as a tool for school reform) jumped all over the news, citing a just-released RAND study as evidence that alone among all of humanity, teachers are somehow immune to monetary incentives. But the same study included this key tidbit (via Public Sector Inc.):

"a majority of the schools disseminated the bonuses equally among staff, despite program guidelines granting school committees the flexibility to distribute the bonus shares as they deemed fit." 

And why did that happen? From The New York Times

In New York, the bonus program operated on a schoolwide basis, not an individual-teacher level, as a result of an agreement between the Education Department and the teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers.

In short: Meritorious teachers did not actually make a single dollar more than their slacker colleagues.

The failure of the NYC program reveals very little about whether merit pay can work—and a great deal about the power of teacher's unions. 

Via the Twitter feed of @benboychuk.


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  1. In short: Meritorious teachers did not actually make a single dollar more than their slacker colleagues.


  2. plenty of evidence teachers would be immune to monetary incentives. They should still be fired, though.

    Although there is a gaffe where they call the federal reserve socialist organization in jest.

  3. If we grant merit pay based on merit, we will undermine the main function of government schools, namely, equalizing all members of society.

  4. I wonder if these slacker teachers are the same ones who loved group work in school…

  5. “Merit Pay” doesn’t work in most bidnesses base on the evidence. Other forms of variable comp are generally more effective (bonuses, stock, other financial and non-financial incentives that increase/decrease/go away in line with performance).

    That is all.

  6. The post was good up to the last point.

    The failure of the NYC program reveals very little about whether merit pay can work?and a great deal about the power of teacher’s unions.

    It is not unions that are the problem, it is lack of school choice that is the problem. In right to work states (e.g., TS), we see the same identical dynamics.

    Without accountability from parents, we will continue to adults behaving in their own interests.

    I have no doubt that a school provider with collective bargaining AND parent choice would have come up with a better approach. They core issue is not unions, it is choice (competition), or lack thereof.

    Let’s be mindful of that. Union bashing is a red herring.

    1. Still have teachers unions in right to work states. they are still extremely powerful.

    2. They core issue is not unions, it is choice (competition), or lack thereof.

      Let’s be mindful of that. Union bashing is a red herring.

      Except you’ve ignored the elephant in the livingroom. Who do you think it is that keeps competition and choice out of the school system?

    3. TS = Tough Sh*t?

  7. So if I’m interpreting the NYT article correctly, paying public school teachers more won’t make a bit of difference. Does this mean we can pay them minimum wage and still get the same results? It would be an interesting experiment, and could save everyone lots of money.

    1. Apparently, this mystical class of the wise should be paying us for the honor of teaching our kids. Only this will improve education.

    2. Damn – you beat me to it…
      Somehow, though, paying teachers more can never do any good, but paying them less can make things infinitely worse

      Like, the teachers, without adequate pay, will turn into brain eating zombies…rendering the children unedumacated, listless, and uninterested in learning… ….
      unlike the current situation…

    3. No no no, paying them all more is the only solution. Paying only the best performers more will not help at all.

  8. Everyone can be super! And when everyone’s super. . .no one will be.

    1. Wow! You musta been bookin! How fast do you think you were goin?

      1. I am the UNDERMINER!

        1. That’s our job.

    2. I liked the basic message of the movie, but I’ve never understood that bit. It would absolutely ROCK for everybody to have access to Syndrome’s inventions.

      1. Syndrome was crazy, dude.

        1. Sure, but the way it was done in the movie made it look like it was supposed to be profoundly evil or something.

          Everyone’s super

      2. Think about what happens if you’re not super and your jet boots die out at 10,000 feet.

        Lots of people would die if they got their hands on Syndrome’s inventions. And YouTube would be full of hilarious videos!

    3. I thought the movie had sort of an asshole message, like the reverse of asshole egalitarians — rather than dragging everyone down to the level of the weakest to make everyone equal, the naturally strong were preventing the naturally weak from using technology to catch up so as to artificially maintain their superiority.

      It makes as much sense to argue against giving prosthetics to the disabled because “if no one is a cripple, everyone is”.

  9. KMW: In short: Meritorious teachers did not actually make a single dollar more than their slacker colleagues.

    NYT: But even at schools where the committee rewarded some teachers more than others, no effect on student performance was discerned.

    1. we need to understand the criteria upon which those rewards were distributed. If it was best dressed then yeah, student performance would not see a bump…but by definition, if it is performance pay then a performance differece will have been seen.

      1. “but by definition, if it is performance pay then a performance differece will have been seen.”

        Huh? The top X% exists whether or not they receive a bonus.

        1. If you pay people on who puts out the most widgets then the person who puts out the most gets more pay…this aint thermodynamic physics here. If no one excels no one gets paid.

          1. How do propose evaluating teacher performance independent of other teachers?

            1. Is our children learning?

    2. Well, then, maybe the idea should be to penalize, rather than reward. Like, the base comp is 50k(or whatever) and the worse you do, the less we pay, up to an including firing.

  10. But as long as we keep throwing money at “education” we’ll be okay!

  11. Doesn’t this mean that you can’t make the bad ones better if they don’t think the reward is worth the extra work/effort. So you should fire them and get someone else on board?

    Also, there are only bad teachers because good teachers exist- otherwise we wouldn’t know how horrible they are.

  12. Maybe no one in the NYC “education establishment” knows what the word “merit” means. Cut ’em some slack.

  13. Perhaps the best first policy would be to eliminate the last in first out workforce management. It pisses me off that the local district will have to shitcan my fiance and her fellow young, bright-eyed, and passionate newer teacher collegues while the grizzled old bitch whose taken up space for 30 years and hates the kids she teaches will remain employed. Seriously, they have to fire two good teachers for every lousy one they keep due to seniority pay and workforce management rules. That’d be a reasonable place to start.

    1. young, bright-eyed, and passionate newer teacher collegues


      Please tell me they also pull shifts in the library.

  14. I have a question. Maybe I’m too dense to understand this, but what were the teachers doing that was meritorious to deserve higher pay if their students still didn’t improve?

    Something’s wrong here.

    1. I’m sorry, but are you saying that my pay should be tied to actual results?

      What a ridiculous idea!

  15. But this does tell us something about merit pay: it tells us we should expect significant implementation challenges to actually doing merit pay. If a program only has the possibility of working if it’s implementing in a way that isn’t actually possible because of institutional barriers, it’s not a program we should to try to implement.

  16. Public school teaching is truly a jobs program. The education required is among the least strenuous and, if you can survive the minimal required years of service, the job security is pretty fucking phenomenal. Add to this union support and support from the state and federal levels, and teachers have a pretty cushy existence in this world.

    Oh, yeah, they get pretty decent pay, benefits, and summers off.

    And they don’t want to make any fucking sacrifice whatsoever. They’re almost worse than Social Security recipients.

  17. I remember when we went to my neighbor/friend’s kid’s graduation; the school canceled all rewards because it would “exclude all the other children”, or some such shit. Fucking public schools.

  18. In other news, simple economic concepts like incentive are lost on muddle-headed bureaucrats, liberals, and unions.

    Well color me surprised and slap my sally.

  19. Paying teachers for student test scores isn’t the answer. Pay the kids if you feel someone must get paid for test results. That would be more like the real world. Several teachers are part of each student’s education. It all isn’t on 1 teacher.

  20. Details are vague, but I recall that quite a bit of research has been done on incentive pay, and that incentives of less than (I think) 10-15% of base pay are pretty much ineffective anywhere.

  21. Minutes after a man robbed a New Brunswick bank this morning, police apprehended the suspected bandit as he was walking away.

    Saul Hernandez, 35, of New Brunswick, was arrested on Livingston Avenue, almost directly across the street from New Millennium Bank that was robbed about 9 a.m., just after it opened for the day, authorities said.

    Nothing else happened.…..ber_a.html

    1. How long is this campaign going to last? A week? A month? A year?

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