The Las Vegas Review-Journal promoted a plan to create a merit pay system for teachers, but failed to note that merit-based pay schemes have not succeeded and could hurt students in low-income areas.
In the May 1 editorial, the paper claims that criteria such as "teacher experience, credentialing, and graduate degrees do not translate to higher student achievement" and should no longer be the basis for pay increases. Instead, it advocates for a merit pay system, as proposed by former Nevada State Superintendent James Guthrie, which would increase teacher pay based on a testing criteria. The top earners would make $200,000 a year, which, in Guthrie's estimation, would attract some of the nation's top teachers and "rescue Nevada public education."
Teachers are currently paid less than comparable workers and their pay has been declining. However, switching to a merit based system is not a proven solution. A study by the RAND corporation which looked at a merit pay system that gave bonuses to better performing teachers, found that, while students performed better over the course of the study, "students of teachers randomly assigned to the treatment group (eligible for bonuses) did not outperform students whose teachers were assigned to the control group (not eligible for bonuses)." A similar RAND study analyzing New York City's experiment with bonuses for teachers found similar results, causing Education Week's blog to claim that it "put the final nail in the coffin" for the NYC program. According to Education Week, the study confirmed that the bonus incentive wasn't achieving its desired outcome:
Apparently the RAND study, commissioned by New York City's education department, was the final straw. The RAND researchers, like those in the previous studies, found the program did not raise student achievement in mathematics or reading in any grade, nor did it improve teacher job satisfaction. The findings led to the city's decision last week to eliminate the program.
Researchers suggested that the program had not adequately motivated staff to understand the program or buy in to the criteria for the bonuses, and noticed that both participating and control schools already faced intense pressure to improve because of the city's accountability measures.
Merit pay systems could also put low-income students at a disadvantage. According to a post by Joshua Pechthalt, vice president of the United Teachers Los Angeles - American Federation of Teachers, merit pay would "create a disincentive" for teachers to go to the most challenging schools and communities:
Merit pay would also hurt the very students with whom the authors of the legislation seem to be concerned. Within schools, teachers might want to teach those students whose skill levels would translate into higher test scores. Skilled, veteran teachers might be less likely to work with students with limited English proficiency or special needs children for fear their students would not test well.
In fact, merit pay would create a disincentive for the very teachers we want going into the most challenging schools and communities. Such teachers might want to move to the most affluent schools because the monetary rewards would be greater. This could have a devastating impact in our poorest communities.
Merit pay systems are not the only alternative to improving the current education system. As the National Education Association pointed out, there are at least two communities -- Portland, Maine and Helena, Montana -- which are using alternative pay systems that "emphasize teachers' professional development and were the results of negotiations between the school district and the local [Teacher's] Association."