Merit Pay for ... Students?
Should schools be "incentivizing" achievement?
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Schools across the country are paying students for As and to attend tutoring sessions. What do administrators think? We asked, and there are no easy answers. Does merit pay level the playing field or is the value of learning learning itself? You decide.
Middle-class kids who get good report cards often receive a new toy or even $5 for each A. These students know that learning offers keys to a comfortable future. For other students, a cash incentive might be transformational. There’s a chance that success will breed motivation and further achievement. In time the monetary reward would become less important and recognition and affirmation would lead to intrinsic satisfaction and continued desire to learn. We have to start somewhere.
-Frances Wills, superintendent, Briarcliff Schools, NY
Schools have been providing incentives to students and parents since the beginning of time. We just took the model to another level.
It’s not just money. Student information, encouragement from teachers, and a change in social norms were partially responsible for the success of Texas’s merit pay program. Perhaps one could have similar successes on these dimensions alone. Cash rewards may be the best way to achieve change along these dimensions, however. We believe more research needs to be done.
-C. Kirabo Jackson, researcher, Cornell University
Merit pay contains the seeds of its own destruction. The goal of education must be to develop self-motivated, self-regulating, lifelong learners. Performance pay teaches exactly the opposite—that learning is simply a task to be endured in order to gain an external reward. There is no silver bullet. Schools cannot alone overcome the burdens that poverty places on its children—there must be a nationwide commitment to ending poverty, so that schools can concentrate on developing students’ ability to learn, and their love of learning. Education is dependent on some of the more mysterious drivers of human nature—relationships, a sense of fulfillment, longing for meaning, and maybe even a romantic sense of oneself and the infinite possibilities that life holds out before us. Without bringing such dynamics into play, a buck for a right answer is brief, shallow, and, in the end, meaningless.
-James T. Langlois, district superintendent, Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES, NY
We need to stop being so data-driven and start focusing on being child-centered. If we actually understood what makes children tick, then we could focus on the individual child, and build on his or her strengths. Merit pay is a cog in the bigger picture: Outsiders believe they can bring a business model to education and make it work. The result is awarding credit for an understanding that isn’t there.”
-Bud West, principal, Kohl Open School, Stockton Unified School District, CA
In New York we face a massive achievement gap. The average African-American 17-year-old reads at the 13-year-old level. If we want to make progress in closing that gap—with a goal of eliminating it entirely—we have to be willing to move beyond the same-old strategies to explore new ideas and potential solutions. Cash incentives are scalable and efficient, more so than offering pizza parties or other such incentives.”
-Debra Wexler, deputy press secretary, New York City public schools
Merit pay is contrary to the mission of educators to foster lifetime learning. In this high-stakes testing environment, it perpetuates a narrowing of the curriculum and moves us further away from 21st-century skills that are necessary in our global economy. Philosophically speaking, we need lifelong learners with broad skill sets to be successful in today’s world.
-Jack Dale, superintendent, Fairfax County Public schools, VA