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Merit Pay Unplugged

A three-year controlled experiment on the connection between the availability of individual merit pay for teachers and their students’ achievement shows none and seems to vindicate the contention that there is no link after all, based on the Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives report released last week.

It comes as no surprise to educators, the huge majority of whom dedicate all their idealism, energy, knowledge, training and skills, full-throttle, every day under all circumstances for the edification of each child.

In their heart-of-hearts it probably doesn’t shock the supporters of “merit pay” either, though they no doubt will rush to condemn the results as scientifically unreliable or skewered by “special interests.”

Teachers don’t need the bait of Race to the Top windfall to spur them to excellence. And teaching, which is a highly complex and elusive art and science, cannot be rated in terms that measure absolute quality; there are too may variables and permutations of influence on learning to allow that.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan downplayed the significance of the study, claiming that it did not address the Administration’s and its like-minded “reformists’” efforts to “change the culture of teaching by giving all educators the feedback they need to get better.”

The “carrot and stick” approach to elicit compliance and fervor among educators smacks, of course, of patronization and condescension. The dollar amount of the proposed bonus doesn’t matter. It’s impertinent in both senses of the word. It suggests that teachers’ honor has a price.

That is the cherished theory of antagonists like Washington, D.C.’s Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who may be soon high-tailing out of the nation’s capital after the crushing defeat of Mayor Fenty, her ardent promoter, in the recent primary election.

Some corporations, foundations and “think tanks” have an incestuous relationship and assert a delusional right to meddle in educational policy as they would not presume to do in any other area. Their audacity is emboldened by research that they themselves sponsor and rig every chance they get or can create.

But the study at Vanderbilt shows that there are limits even to their stage management.

School systems don’t need individual merit pay; what they need is a genuine meritocracy. But the pursuit of what is euphemistically called “reforms” is the single greatest impediment to its reign.