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The Reversible Bonus: A Mean But Effective Way to Boost Teacher's Performance?

Can we boost a teacher's academic performance by giving him or her more money? Efforts to reward teacher's performance with year-end bonuses have largely failed, but a new study by economists revealed that you can indeed motivate teachers to perform better: you just have to give them money up front, and threaten to take it away if they fail.

Thanks to education reformers such as former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, many of us are now familiar with the idea of merit pay -- the notion that teachers' earnings should be tied to their students' success. Unions have pushed back hard against the idea. In terms of public policy, it often translates into handing out year-end bonuses to instructors who get the best results, with the hope that the promise of a larger paycheck will motivate them to work harder when they're up in front of the chalkboard.

But Levitt, Fryer and Co. argue that there's a serious problem with merit pay. So far, they say, there's been scant evidence that it actually works. Studies of teacher incentive programs in Tennessee and New York City failed to find any signs that they improved student learning. In the New York experiment, which Harvard's Fryer conducted, the impact may have even been detrimental.

Enter loss aversion. The authors theorized that instead of offering a lump-sum bonus to teachers come summertime, it might be more effective to give instructors money upfront, then warn them that they would have to pay it back if their students didn't hit the proper benchmarks. Rather than tap into teachers' ambition, they'd tap into their anxiety.

Jordan Weissmann of The Atlantic explains: Link 

There's a great RSA video/talk about motivation. It turns out that money (or other extrinsic rewards) only work for rote, physical labor. For cognitive tasks, motivation must come from within. In fact, rewarding cognitive tasks had the opposite effect.

As a teacher, I'm torn. While I'd love to get more pay, I'd much rather see the worst teachers removed.
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My kids switched from private school to public school a couple of years ago, and even though I had heard about the cult of testing, it shocked me to see it up close.

The private school gave the state tests, as required, but the teachers could get no bonuses, so it was not a big deal.

In the public schools, most teachers never get excited about anything until test time. The kids, throughout the school, believed that the world would end if they didn't do good on the tests. The teachers instilled that fear. Actually, the tests had no effect whatsoever on the children's grades, just the teachers bonuses. And they spent WEEKS getting ready for the tests.

Now that the kids are older and know that they needn't get all anxious about such testing, they have lost faith in the teaching profession.
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@anothermichael - Merit pay is usually tied to change in improvement in student academic performance. That way, teachers that get less than stellar students can still get bonuses.

We haven't talked about America's obsession with testing as a way to measure academic success. On one hand, it purports to provide a subjective yardstick, yet on the other hand it encourages training to pass, rather than learning.

Some people (most vocally the teacher's union) argue that testing is a very bad idea, but others insist on a measurable return on taxpayer's money.

It doesn't have to be this way. Finland, for instance, has a very good school system without resorting to a battery of testing. Their secret is good teachers.
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This is a win-win! Shove 35 kids per teacher into a room and then when the kids fail to learn, take back some of the teacher's pay! It'll be way cheaper than the alternative of doubling the numbers of teachers and paying them enough money to raise a family... That'd be silly.
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If it's a meritocracy you want, then it's simply a matter of raising teachers' pay across the board. "Talent" will follow.

But if, like me, you think meritocracy is a dirty word (as did its coiner) then it might be a good idea to examine what we want from our public educational system in the first place. Do we want to turn out cogs in a machine to keep us ahead of all those hard-working and under-paid foreigners? Or do we want an educational system that stresses the importance of education for its own sake, not to mention for the sake of a healthy and functioning democracy.

Placing all the emphasis on outcomes might work well if you consider your children to be little more than unthinking factors of production, but I for one am not quite ready to consign them to that fate.
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I teach inclusion classes. This means the kids who have various issues, be they behavioral or emotional, and/or learning disabilities. If merit pay is to be part of the paycheck, then these kids will be tossed around if not forced out somehow.
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Another deeper question I have, and one that is not talked about in the article, except in the comments, is did they look for cheating? Michelle Rhee, a darling of the charter school system looked great until evidence of institutional cheating surfaced which were inflating grades.

How do we really know that we are not instead promoting people who are willing to cheat, rather than those who actually teach better?
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There are many problems with this.

Unless you are teaching first grade only, much of what you will teach your children depends on prior knowledge - you're ability to educate the children will be largely based on how well they were educated before reaching you.

Some years, just by odds, you are going to have a poorly performing batch of children. These and other factors introduce a lot of randomness to the process. In this case, dire financial consequences could result.

This could have negative incentive consequences. A teacher responsible for more than 30 children has a finite amount of time. The lower performing child who must raise his scores 30 points just to pass and the high performing child who could afford to lose 30 points will be equally ignored in favor of borderline children to get better stats.

They will 'teach to the test' even more, ignoring application and intuitive understanding.

I suspect this will do little to eliminate terrible teachers with the side effect of sometimes punishing good ones.
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