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An article in this month’s Atlantic magazine asks the worn question, “What if America’s teachers made more money?” We are still facing teacher shortages in certain geographic areas and states like Missouri facing shortages in specific content areas. Everyone continues to wrestling with the problem of how to get and keep good quality teachers in the classroom. The problem is hardly new. While most teachers will complain that they aren’t paid enough, just offering them more money has not been shown to be an adequate solution for over a decade. So why are states still considering plans to introduce things like merit pay or bonuses for “highly effective” teachers?

The issue of properly compensating teachers to achieve better student outcomes is a complex problem with many possible influence levers and inconclusive or weak correlative research. Deciding what metric differentiates a great teacher from an adequate one  is not as easy as those outside of education like to think. You can’t just look at how their students scored on a standardized test to compare them fairly. Figuring out what highly effective teachers did that got better long term outcomes for students is also elusive. Number of degrees, evaluation systems, pay, and professional development do not consistently account for the differences.

Also it’s hard to accurately describe what makes a teacher a top performer. It’s equally as hard to figure out how to get that performance from her. So often we turn to pay, as the Atlantic noted.

However, research shows that the carrot of higher pay does not lead to better results. Parents Across America noted, “In an authoritative study conducted at Vanderbilt University, for example, teachers who were offered bonuses for improving student test results produced no more improvement than the control group.”

“Similar studies of teacher merit pay have shown null results in New York City and Chicago. Because of the lack of positive results, a number of pay for performance programs have been abandoned, including programs in  New York City and California.”

That didn’t stop Missouri from making merit pay a goal in its Educated Citizenry 20/20 Report in 2010.  It recommended a task force be assembled to “develop a statewide system for evaluating teacher effectiveness to be used in performance-based compensation,” and “Permit the use of differentiated pay to meet the demands of the teacher labor market.” Unfortunately the teacher labor market is not all that fond of differentiated pay. What they want is a more supportive professional environment.

Check out this chart from the 2000 report A Sense of Calling done by the Thomas B Fordham Foundation and Open Society Institute which shows the relevance of various factors to teacher satisfaction in comparison to higher salaries.

teacher motivs

Money is not the top motivator in any head to head comparison.

The Atlantic said, “Surveys suggest that although teachers’ job satisfaction has declined significantly in recent years, their perceptions about pay have hardly changed; factors beyond money contribute to the recruitment-and-turnover problems.”

According to a 2000 Rand Corporation report on merit pay “[S]uccessful pay‐for‐performance systems… must ensure that the bonus system truly incentivizes teacher behavior, that teacher cooperation and collaboration is not reduced, that lead teachers are not encouraged to engage in dysfunctional behaviors, that there is a strong link between schooling outcomes and teacher rewards, and that gaming and other ‘unintended consequences’ documented in some high‐stakes testing and accountability environments are minimized.”  Think of that as a list of everything that has gone wrong with pay-for-performance systems to date.

School districts who are pushing bond measures to fund salary increases are just plain doing it wrong. The public should take the time to ask the school boards what other measures they are considering to improve teaching conditions and teacher morale which could go as far if not farther than large pay increases alone.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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