mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
No Silver Bullets in Education

The past few years have seen waves of new ideas in education reform: charter schools, new methods of teacher training, new testing, and merit pay, to name a few. Activists line up behind their preferred solutions, and then politicians from Barack Obama to Bobby Jindal jump on one or more of these bandwagons. But the bandwagons, in many cases, have rushed out way ahead of the science.

Merit pay, in particular, may not be all it’s cracked up to be. The Washington Post examined this problem in a recent profile of Dan Pink, a high-profile critic of the recent push for merit-based teacher pay:

Tangible, extrinsic rewards can dampen intrinsic motivation, Pink said, noting that these findings have been repeated in dozens of experiments over the decades. “The science on this is robust,” he said. “And it’s also among the most ignored.” […]

Pink thinks there’s nothing wrong with paying teachers more. In fact, all teachers should earn more, he said, so they don’t abandon teaching for financial reasons.

“It’s not that money doesn’t matter,” Pink said. “It’s that the best use of money is to get people to stop thinking about money.”

These arguments make sense. Though justice and common sense say that bad teachers shouldn’t get the same rewards as good ones, those who look to merit pay to solve everything that ails American education will surely be disappointed. The problems with American education are broad and varied, and there are no silver bullets.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Tom Gates

    We are spending more money on education than ever before. Parents are having to buy books for their kids as well as outlays for sports equipment and other activies. Didn’t happen when I was a kid in the 70s.You casusally say pay teachers more, but isn’t it relative? When does someone feel fincially secure? Often never. I notice that people tend to put teachers on the same pedestal as police, fire and soldiers and always say we should pay them more. Somehow they are equated as having “dirty jobs”. That says something about our culture, and you will never please them and they will always think and say they are “underpaid”. I say again, WHERE IS THE MONEY GOING?

  • LarryD

    What unions hate about merit systems is that it identifies the under-performers, setting the stage for firing them.

    This would be true even if the top performs didn’t get merit pay, just recognition.

  • Jbird

    Tom: the money is going to County, State, and Federal level administration. My local paper does a feature every year on the number of 6-figure incomes at the county headquarters for the public schools. It’s well over 100 people now who do (and that excludes school level employees like principles), and it grows every year. Now multiply that by 3,143 counties now expand the list to include state level education employees and then finally the US Dept. of Ed’s budget is almost $70 billion. I bet 95% of people couldn’t tell you one constructive thing the US Dept of Ed does.

    My father teaches at a private school, and they seem quite capable of providing a quality education with very little bureaucracy (Board-Head Master-2 Principals 1 of Elementary and 1 of Middle & High School). They pay a respected private regional certifying agency (middle states) to come in and verify that they are actually meeting minimum standards.

    A mechanism for getting rid of bad teachers (and not just putting them in NYC-style rubber rooms) and streamlining the massively byzantine administration from the Federal level down to the county level would go a long way towards solving problems in education.

  • Mrs. Davis

    There is a silver bullet for education.

    Parental control.

    Once parents have the choice of what school to send their children to, schools will improve. Not in the same way, because there is no one single best way to educate all children. But in ways that are responsive to the needs of each child.

    It’s the way we efficiently distribute most things. Would you really want to receive your standard public food for free from a government distribution center?

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    What is needed is both “the Carrot (merit pay) and the Stick (fired)” just like the free enterprise system has, which no one can argue works and works well. There are 4,000 of 80,000 teachers in NY who are on the payroll, but for one reason or another cannot be allowed in front of children, nor can they be fired.

  • Neville

    The problem with K-12 education in the US is that the teachers’ unions control it. If we go to a system of merit pay without recognizing this (the current trajectory), the teachers’ union will quickly acquire control over who gets the merit pay (their friends and officials, rather than particularly good teachers).

    Ten years later everyone will discover the resulting absurdities as if they had been somehow impossible to predict. And so the wheel turns.

    The reason nobody ever learns anything about improving K-12 education in the US is that the people who have control of it have zero incentive to learn anything new, and until the degree of control they currently enjoy is wrested away from them that is very unlikely to change.

  • WigWag

    It’s funny how in public schools in Greenwich, CT, Summit, NJ, Scarsdale, NY, Shaker Heights, OH, Brookline, MA and hundreds of other school systems, unionized teachers who don’t get merit pay, don’t teach in private or charter schools and don’t have to deal with any of the new-fangled ideas dreamed up by right wing ideologues do a superior job and produce world class students. Yet in so many inner city schools and in schools populated by students coming from the new white underclass talked about by Charles Murray, nothing seems to work.

    What the data shows is that in these deprived communities there is no evidence that anything works. Unionized teachers can’t get the job done but neither do charter schools or private schools when available. Parochial schools do worst of all. In these communities there is no evidence that paying teachers well or poorly or based on merit matters. There is little evidence that “Head Start” matters, that values based education works or that the amount a district spends per student matters. Other than providing early intervention for developmentally disabled students (e.g. kids with autism) which clearly is effective, literally nothing else these schools do seems to matter.

    Has it occurred to anyone that as ironic as it sounds the teacher and his abilities, qualifications, level of pay or tenure status is simply the least relevant part of the equation?

    Those who want to talk about teachers aren’t interested in whether kids learn; they’re interested in grinding their ideological axes regardless of where on the political spectrum they are.

    If the teacher isn’t the crucial ingredient, what is? The answer is obviously the parents. It’s not how active the parents are in the schools; it’s how actively involved the parents are at home. In the Brooklines and Scarsdales of the world for many reasons parents play a larger and more positive role in their children’s lives; that’s why their children excel regardless of what their kid’s teachers are like.

    Arguing about teacher’s unions, merit pay o public versus private versus charter schools is a fool’s errand. With good parents kids thrive in any type of school environment. With bad parents nothing about the schools matter at all.

  • John Barker

    One thing we lack is viable theory of instruction that deals with real difference in intellectual ability,values and interests. Some people learn well in an applied setting but flounder when considering abstractions in the classroom. Much resistance to learning occurs when we place young people in settings where they cannot excel, but are expected to keep on striving.

  • Luke Lea

    How about web cameras in public school classrooms as a way to monitor class room discipline and teacher competence? Without them it is hard to legally document problems when and where they exist.

    Maybe not a silver bullet, but doable.

  • Eurydice

    As far as I can tell from reading the article on Mr. Pink, the only people calling merit pay “a silver bullet” are those who are against it. The advocates quoted who are for merit pay argue that it’s not a silver bullet, that it’s not meant to motivate teachers to be better at their jobs, and that the purpose is to keep good teachers on the payroll – something Mr. Pink agrees is desirable and should be done.

    The rest seems to be a fruit salad of apples and oranges. Poorly researched, with threads leading nowhere, it’s more a lifestyle puff piece promoting Mr. Pink and his book. If one is against the idea of merit pay (whatever that might be) then one can point to this and say, “See? Mr. Pink says so.” If one is looking for a compelling argument, this is not it. In fact, the most convincing part is the quote from an actual teacher who said she was happy to get a raise because it’s nice to know people appreciate her.

  • Toni


    Gee, does Wall Street know that financial rewards don’t work? Shouldn’t somebody tell them?

  • Toni

    WigWag, check out the Knowledge Is Power Program, a charter school system.

  • Mark Michael

    I think the goal should be to move in the direction of returning K-12 education to private control – in the distant future as a realistic matter – but that should be our long-term goal. All of the other “reforms” end up being co-opted by the employees of the school system eventually. The drive for “monopolization” is as strong in government as anywhere else, and it’s less resisted there than in the private sector marketplace. (We have antitrust laws that are enforced at times for businesses, but not for government monopolies! In all monopolies, the normal business mantra, “The customer is always right!” Becomes, “The customer is wrong if he disagrees with the Monopoly!” A clue is whenever public school teachers blame the customer: the parents are at fault, the culture is at fault, the kids can’t learn because of X, Y, Z.)

    My place to start would be to phase out the federal Dept. of Education completely. Eliminate all federal funding and involvement in K-12 education. Given our massive ($1.3 trillion) annual federal budget deficit we have today, it’s an ideal time to do that. Maybe do it over a 4-year period – lots of contracts to let run out; block grant some programs to the states with a year or two of funding; then it’s up to the states to end them or raise taxes to keep them.

    School administrators claim that the federal programs drive as much as 40% of their administrative overhead – paperwork that they have to contend with, but the feds provide less than 10% of their funds.

    I’d hope once the feds get out of the business, the 50 states would be freer to innovate, freer to just let the local areas control and fund the schools.

    There are already lots of small school choice programs going on around the country. I’d think they’d grow to much greater number, wider scope, and better funding.

    Just to note a few: Milwaukee educates 22,000 of their K-12 students with vouchers used at 125+ private schools. It’s the oldest voucher program in the country; started in maybe 1992. Wisconsin expanded it to include the county surrounding MIlwaukee last year. Racine will have a voucher program also.

    Indiana passed a statewide voucher program in 2011. It has 4,000 students using it this year. I’d guess it’ll expand by at least 4,000 students this fall, and continue to add a similar number each year after that. It’s means-tested, but the income level is lower middle class (the amount escapes me at the moment, maybe $60,000/year).

    Ohio has the EdChoice voucher program with 17,900 students using it this year. The cap was raised to 60,000 last year. It’s been in existence since 2006, I think it is. Only students attending failing public schools are eligible (no income restriction, though), which limits it to mostly students in the inner cities. (But that’s where the poorer schools are.)

    Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal has proposed a sweeping school choice program that he said he’s submitting to the legislature in March. The details are unknown at this point. It’s to be statewide and include more charter schools and vouchers.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service