First Person

Why Bother with Merit Pay?

What is the point of merit pay for teachers? Isn’t that the first question we should be asking? And then, given that answer, do we think that it will work? Let’s take a look!

(Let me be clear here: for the sake of this discussion, I am talking about some sort of compensation structure by which individual teachers get bonuses and/or raises based on their own students’ performance on some sort of test or measure.)

One possible reason to adopt merit pay is that it seems more just, in a way. That is, it would be only be fair if better teachers should be paid more money. I mean, who wouldn’t think that better teachers — even if by “better teachers” we mean “teachers who get better results” — deserve more money? We could argue about which outcomes and measures are meaningful, but the basic idea has a lot of appeal.

There is another big potential reason to adopt merit pay — a far more compelling possibility. If a merit pay program would somehow lead to improved outcomes, who would oppose such a thing? But I wonder if that result is even plausible, given the realities and details that so many people want to ignore. So, let’s think about what the theory of action (i.e. how/why such programs lead to the desired outcomes) might be. How could a merit pay program lead to improved outcomes? I have three big questions.

1) My first question about any merit pay program would have to be, “Where is the money going to come from?” Obviously, that is related to “How big a program are we talking about?”

There are lots of reason to building large program, covering many teachers and with large bonuses (see below). However, this runs up against a problem that is not seen in most other industries. You see, better teaching – even better outcomes – does not produce the revenue to pay for these bonuses. A better salesperson will generate greater revenue, revenue than can be used to pay for his/her bonus. A more efficient repairperson can cover more repairs, saving the employer on headcount, thus economically justifying a bonus. But what about a better teacher?

The public schools already have enormous market share. More importantly, additional students drawn from private schools do not generate additional revenue. Additional student drawn from charter schools generate less than average revenue. So, where would the money come from?

Washington, D.C., appears to be on the brink of starting a large new merit pay program. However, it is being paid for with private funds. What happens when those grants run out? New York City’s public school system is 25 times the size of D.C.’s. Are there private grants that would pay for an equivalent program in NYC? This is simply not a scalable solution, neither as a long term solution nor as a broad solution for many districts.

2) My next question is, “How much money will it take to alter the behavior of existing teachers?”

That is one of the basic principles of merit pay programs, right? That is, by providing monetary incentives, teachers will work differently than they would otherwise. Well, would what it take?

We already know that teachers are not particularly sensitive to monetary incentive. After all, they chose to go into a famously low-paying profession, one without enormous financial upside. (Yes, given decades of experience and very advanced degrees, they can make over $100,000 in some districts, but that amount of experience and education yields far greater compensation in other fields.) There are decades of research to back this up — research that shows that teachers are not particularly motivated by financial rewards. We should, therefore, expect them to need even larger bonuses to alter behavior in education than in other fields.

But we are still missing a theory of action. There is a still a black box or underwear gnomes scenario (i.e. a situation in which a key step that is never explored or explained). If teachers do not know what to do to be better, how is paying them bonuses going to help solve that problem? If, on the other hand, teachers know but are too lazy to do what it takes, how is offering these already lazy and monetarily insensitive folks bonuses going to change that? How is the possibility of bonuses going to alter behavior?

I think that this line of thinking contains the most common mistake people who support merit pay make. They confuse how they might respond to such a structure with how others might respond. People in finance are accustomed to a large bonus component of their compensation, and they believe that this system works. However, the people who have gone into that industry already knew that going in. This is a system that works for them. But teachers did not go into such a system, and clearly were not looking for even the possibility of massive compensation. Why expect them to respond like people in finance might?

I am not suggesting that there is not some level of bonus that would alter behavior. Rather, I am asking what it is, or what the rational basis for determining it might be. Is there a research basis for establishing the size of these bonuses? Is there even a logic behind the setting of merit pay bonuses for teachers beyond “This is how much money we have raised”?

3) My last big question is, “How much money would it take to significantly alter the composition of the teacher pool?”

There are many who believe that we have the wrong people in teaching — that we need harder workers or smarter people, or whatever. Many of them are merit pay proponents, and they see such programs as attracting more of the right people to the classroom.

An argument that I have heard quite a few times suggests that some people choose not go into teaching because they resent the idea of not being rewarded for their excellence. This argument suggests that what is important to them is being recognized as being better than their colleagues. I suppose that I have some sympathy for this argument. After all, who does not want their accomplishments recognized? But that is not the same thing as insisting that one’s recognition come in the form of a check! Is anyone seriously suggesting that making $100 bonuses available to the best teachers will significantly alter the pool of teachers? That is simply a laughable suggestion, right? If recognition of excellence is important, that can be addressed in ceremonies, announcements and/or public bulletins, and done far less expensively than merit pay programs while offering far greater inventive than small checks.

I understand that there are many people who never consider going into teaching, or who rule it out, because of the level of compensation. But small or even moderate bonuses are not going to change that. I understand that people want to be rewarded for their hard work and accomplishments, and some people expect more money for that than others. So, again, how large would the bonuses have to be, and how many would have to be available, to alter the career decisions of a significant number of people?

For example, if a teacher could potentially double his/her first year salary, but only one one out of a thousand teachers would get the bonus, would that possibility attract a lot of new applicants?

4) My last question is really a composite of the first three. “If the money available for such a program is neither enough to alter behaviors nor attract new people to teaching, isn’t merit pay just a way to reward existing high performers? And how does that actually improve our schools?”

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.