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How 'merit pay' squelches teaching

GOVERNOR MITT Romney, proving the axiom that no bad idea stays dead forever, has proposed a merit pay scheme for teachers that pretends to be a bold new initiative for education reform. While it may be bold, it is far from new. If implemented, it is destined to be an expensive failure.

The idea of merit pay, sometimes called pay for performance, was born in England around 1710. Teachers' salaries were based on their students' test scores on examinations in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The result was that teachers and administrators became obsessed with financial rewards and punishments, and curriculums were narrowed to include only the testable basics.

So drawing, science, and music disappeared. Teaching became more mechanical as teachers found that drill and rote repetition produced the ''best" results. Both teachers and administrators were tempted to falsify results, and many did. The plan was ultimately dropped, signaling the fate of every merit plan initiative ever since.

Nonetheless, merit pay plans of all kinds continue to resurface, since the paucity of new ideas in public education narrows the thinking of policymakers and sooner or later propels all old plans to the front, regardless of their sad history. In 1969, President Richard Nixon championed a plan he called ''performance contracting," in which it soon became apparent that financial incentives not only failed to produce expected gains but also generated damaging educational practices such as falsifying school records and teaching to the test to boost scores artificially. The inability of contractors to develop innovative teaching strategies and the dismal results of the program eventually doomed performance contracting, and it was declared a failure. So much for learning from history.

Merit pay comes in many forms and flavors -- including extra bonuses for student achievement gains, satisfactory evaluations by principals or committees, acquiring additional duties, gaining new skills and knowledge, and serving in hard-to-staff schools. We've looked at dozens of plans in North America, South America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Guess what? None of them, past and present, has ever had a successful track record. None has ever produced its intended results. Any gains have been minimal, short-lived, and expensive to achieve.

Mysteriously, that hasn't prevented states and school districts all over the country (and the world) from venturing into this misguided plan to waste money and further strain an already exhausted system.

Yet a good case can be made for merit pay, if that means higher salaries for higher professional achievement. But that can only be accomplished by instituting education reforms that include a career ladder in which teachers can, by acquiring the skills, knowledge, responsibilities, and certification, climb from one career level to the next -- for example, by advancing from associate teacher to teacher, then professional teacher, and finally chief instructor. And by further professionalizing the practice of teaching so that teachers work in teams instead of in isolation, increasing collaboration and accountability. And by including professional development in the career path of all teachers, just as in other fields such as medicine and law. These steps must all be taken together in order for any of them to succeed.

Public education cries out for this kind of fundamental reform. But it will never happen as long as policymakers continue to be less interested in improving teaching and learning than they are in drawing attention to themselves to press a political agenda.

Vivian Troen, a lecturer at Brandeis University, and Katherine C. Boles, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, are the authors of ''Who's Teaching Your Children?: Why the Teacher Crisis Is Worse Than You Think and What Can Be Done About It."

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