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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why Merit Pay is Neither Fair nor Effective for Teachers or Students

A Political Disclaimer

Let me begin by stating that most of my friends and family would classify me as a conservative, pro-business, traditional moral, God-fearing kind of gal. So, before you write off my opinion as enemy drivel, please allow me to share why our education system deserves better than simply falling in line with typical party alliances.  As Conservatives, we should be the leading defenders against such programs as Merit Pay and laws like No Child Left Behind, not champions of them, and I would like to share with you why. 

Merit Pay and Highly Standardized Curriculum Leave Little Time/Room for Teaching Problem Solving Skills, Fostering Creativity, or Encouraging Social Collaboration

In order to determine who does and does not receive merit pay bonuses, student improvement has to be highly quantifiable. To achieve this, curriculum and test questions are aimed only at academic subjects that can be standardized. Because such vital skills as problem solving, creativity, and social collaboration, cannot be easily tested for or standardized, they are of necessity excluded from every day classroom instruction. It may be tempting to assume that truly great teachers would be able to meet both the demands for standardized learning while continuing to meet students higher level thinking needs, and this could be possible, were it not for the sheer scope of material teachers are unreasonably yet legally required to cover. For any given standard a typical teacher has approximately enough time to spend one lesson teaching the concept before he/she needs to move on in order to get through a years worth of material, if they can even accomplish that! Even with the implementation of Common Core, which boasts standards that are an inch wide and a mile deep, there are still far too many standards to cover effectively. Instead, standards are now more like a mile wide and a mile deep, making it harder than ever to meet required goals, let alone have time to devote to the types of activities that promote deep thinking, creativity, and collaboration.

Unfortunately for the U.S.A., deeply creative, out-of-the-box thinkers are exactly what our different industries need, are calling for, and aren't finding today! According to the Deseret News, "81 percent [of employers] cited a lack of critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills among graduates..." and Miller and Almon, in their report, Crisis in the Kindergarten, share, "Now, while many politicians and policymakers are calling for even more tests, more accountability, and more hard-core academics... the leaders of major business corporations are saying that creativity and play are the future of the U.S. economy" (p.12).

If we want to maintain the United State of America's status as a competitive global business market we need more flexibility within the schools, not less! We don't need kids who can compute faster, we have computers for that. We need children who understand the reasoning behind computations and who can creatively apply them. We don't need students who can define every technical term in relation to sentences; we need children who know how to use sentences to communicate powerful ideas. If we allow for more flexibility within classrooms and cut back on standardized testing, these goals are achievable and science proves it!

Miller and Almon, for example, cite a study that compared, "50 play-based classes with 50 early-learning centers [i.e. standardized classrooms][which] found that by age ten the children who had played ex- celled over the others in a host of ways. They were more advanced in reading and mathematics and they were better adjusted socially and emotionally in school. They excelled in creativity and intelligence, oral expression, and 'industry'" (P. 7).

According to Clements and Samara, in their article Play, “Studies also show that if children play with objects before they are asked to solve problems with them, they are more successful and more creative. For example, one study with three groups of 3- to 5-year-olds asked them to retrieve an object with short sticks and connectors. One group was allowed to play with the sticks and connecting devices, one group was taught how the sticks could be connected, and one group was asked to tackle the task without prior play or learning. The first two groups performed similarly and achieved better results than the third group. Often, the group that simply played with the sticks and connectors first solved the problem more quickly than the group that was taught how to use them."

The sort of child-centered play and learning described above, and the time necessary to achieve it, do not easily fit into merit pay-based systems, and unfortunately are often misunderstood and discouraged. But if we are hoping to compete on the global level, it is important we begin making room for a more holistic approach to learning!

Research Shows That Merit Pay and Other Standardized, One-Size-Fits-All Programs are Ineffective at Best and Detrimental at Worst

Merit pay is typically the rallying cry and the "grand solution" of conservative, pro-business minded Americans, for many of the ills of our current education system. Those who support the adoption of merit pay policies trumpet the idea that such actions will increase teacher accountably, improve test scores, and create a more equitable system for both students and educators. While these cries for the establishment of Merit Pay are surely well intentioned, unfortunately, the results are in, and studies show just how ineffective such policies are. Far from being on shaky ground, a euphemism used by one proponent of Merit Pay, these policies don't even have a leg to stand on when it comes to evidence. According to this same proponent, studies done across the nation (and even across the ocean) show, "...that students assigned to teachers who were eligible for bonuses did not outperform those whose teachers were in the control group and could not receive bonuses. "

Further, the mounting pressure for increased standardized testing, ever higher academic goals, and the adoption of scripted curriculums (unavoidable companions of merit pay programs) has not only proven ineffective but also highly detrimental for overall student well being and achievement! A study commissioned by the government on the effectiveness of the Reading First program--a carefully scripted curriculum designed to ensure that all children would meet grade level (or above) reading standards by the end of 3rd grade--shows that despite many years of learning and mastering the application of the program, no meaningful improvements were made in student reading scores/ability.  In the words of the study itself, "Reading First did not produce a statistically significant impact on student reading comprehension test scores in grades one, two or three..." (p.1). This result was corroborated by an earlier study also commissioned by the government. These same studies also share that the programs were effectively administered. In this case, the question must be asked is it the teachers that need to be held accountable? Or the curriculum designers and the politicians that supported them?

Not only do programs like Reading First fail to achieve their overall goals, they are also having negative effects on students. According to Miller & Almon, in Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play In School, "Kindergartners are now under great pressure to
 meet inappropriate expectations, including academic standards that until recently were reserved for first grade. At the same time, they are being denied the benefits of play—a major stress reliever. This double burden, many experts believe, is contributing to a rise in anger and aggression in young children, reflected in increasing reports of severe behavior problems. Given the high
rates of psychiatric disturbances among children today,
 it is critically important that early education practices promote physical and emotional health and not exacerbate illness" (p.11).

They also share, "The High/Scope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study, which followed the students' progress through age 23, showed that at-risk preschooler's required more treatment for emotional problems and ultimately committed more felonies if they were taught in a scripted curriculum classroom rather than a play-based program" (p.20).

While many of these studies cited refer to early childhood education, the benefits of a more flexible child centered curriculum can be seen across grade levels, so long as methodology is matched to age appropriate cognitive and developmental standards. To ask for more flexibility within the classroom is not to throw all learning and accountability out the window, rather it is to allow educators to tailor curriculum and strategies in order to meet a wide array of student needs, including social and emotional well being. 

In light of this research, one begins to see that Merit Pay and its companion standardized programs, while well-meaning as they may be, not only do not solve any problems but in many cases, cause them. Further, there are obvious alternatives to improving our education system, that while not as efficiently measured as standardized testing and curriculum, never the less, show greater long term gains for overall student well being.


  1. AMEN! Added to your thoughts is the case that not all children are created equal and come to school at different levels of readiness to learn. Some of my 4th graders came from drug, alcohol and abuse influenced homes. Some of them required much attention just to help them feel safe. An IEP for many of those included much time on counseling and loving. Success and growth was not measured by performance on state tests, but on unquantifiable smiles, hugs and participation on the playground and in the classroom. Teachers who are good with damaged children, school bullies and so forth tend to have a higher number of those needy children placed in their classrooms. There is ample learning taking place in those rooms that will help those future adults function better in life. Should those teachers' value be compared to the teachers that get a higher percentage of students that come to school ready to learn? And to say, we should equally divide the problem kids among all the teachers and make all lessons taught in the classroom academically based to prepare all students for their state testing is unfair to those kids that need a different approach to their school days by placing them with teachers that are less accommodating to those kids needs. FIL

  2. This is fabulous Megan - so well worded. Your writing skills are stunning!!! Thank you for sharing this.


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