Gates R&D Chief Tom Kane on the Nashville Merit Pay Study

By 09/23/2010

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(This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

In response to Monday’s post on the Nashville merit pay study, Gates Foundation research honcho and Harvard professor Tom Kane sent me a really thoughtful, incisive take on the study’s limitations. Tom, a good friend and one of the smartest folks in the business, is currently heading up the massive Gates research effort into teacher performance, evaluation, and pay.

Tom and I sometimes agree and sometimes have spirited disagreements on these issues, but on this one we’re reading from a shared hymnal. In fact, I thought his take so razor-sharp and succinct that I asked if I could share it, and he genially agreed.

Here’s what Tom had to say:

“It’s a well-done study of a not-very-interesting question. Merit pay for teachers could impact student achievement via three distinct routes: by encouraging teachers to work harder, by encouraging talented and skilled teachers to remain in teaching, by enticing talented and skilled people to enter teaching. The study was designed to answer a narrow question: can you make the average teacher work harder with monetary incentives? They did not report any results on the likelihood that more effective teachers would remain in teaching. Nor did they design the study to study entry into teaching.

We know there are huge differences in student achievement gains in different teachers’ classrooms. The authors confirmed that result. However, the impact of the specific incentive they tested depends on what underlies the differences in teacher effectiveness–effort vs. talent and accumulated skill. I’ve never believed that lack of teacher effort–as opposed to talent and skills–was the primary issue underlying poor student achievement gains. Rather, the primary hope for merit pay is that it will encourage talented teachers to remain in the classroom or to enter teaching. Although the jury is admittedly still out on it, this study provides no reason to question that hope.

Moreover, the study obviously says nothing about the potential impact of more meaningful tenure review. That, I think, is the most likely route of impact for teacher effectiveness policies.”

Comment on this article
  • Dick Schutz says:

    Aw, cmon, guys.

    Put down your hymnals and put on your thinking caps. Merit pay is about raising student achievement. Nows about making teachers work harder, teacher retention, or teacher recruitment.

    The study used what you consider “gold standard” methodology to refute the ideology of “merit pay.” The results are consistent with earlier research and with the literature regarding teacher characteristics.

    So what do evidence-driven reformers do when they encounter evidence that refutes their beliefs? They dismiss the evidence, rely on misplaced hope and retain their ideologically-driven belief.

    “This study provides no reason to question that hope”

    Hope? We don’t need no stinkin hope. When are we going to get educational change we can believe in?
    Report as inappropriate

  • Bob says:

    The study’s findings make complete sense when you consider the ideas supported in Daniel Pink’s, Drive. It’s all about motivation.

  • Michael says:

    Everything merit pay could do, higher wages and basic respect will do.

  • M. Teresa Lepeley says:

    The Nashville merit pay study could have had a bit of merit under the precarious definition of quality of education last century. But given what we know today it shows serious limitations and overall ignorance of the quality paradigm of the 21st century.

    Here are a few important shortcomings:

    1. Teaching is one of the most difficult profession (if not the most difficult, given the high level of responsibility teachers must undertake to perform the responsibility to help students improve, and far beyond the classroom and grades). Consequently, any reliable program of teaching performance based on students’ learning, has to include “professional development” programs as necessary condition to foster change and improvement. When teachers do not receive support and training to develop new skills, improvement is rare and pay incentives are useless. This study confirms this outcome.

    2. The quality education paradigm of the 21st century assign credit and grants merit, “after” merit is shown. In short, merit pay is never a “promise” for the future, but it is a “reward for good past performance”. Quality merit pay is not a “carrot” (as this study conveys) so there is no use for a “stick”. The purpose of “merit pay” is to compensate quality teachers for past efforts that results in student achievement. The study missed a most critical quality dimension: real merit is recognition for successful efforts, not for uncertain expectations in education.

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