Cassandra Warns the Trojans About Merit Pay

by Robert Pondiscio
April 22nd, 2009

If you remember your Greek mythology, you’ll recall Cassandra, tragically blessed with the gift of prophecy but cursed by Apollo so that no one would believe her.  Think of her while reading Diane Ravitch’s latest over at Bridging Differences

Here is my prediction: Merit pay of the kind I have described will not make education better, even if scores go up next year or the year after. Instead, it will make education worse, not only because some of the “gains” will be based on cheating and gaming the system, but because they will be obtained by scanting attention to history, geography, civics, the arts, science, literature, foreign languages, and all the other studies that are needed to develop smarter individuals, better citizens, and people who are prepared for the knowledge-based economy of the 21st Century. Nor will it identify better teachers; instead, it will reward those who use their time for low-level test preparation.

“Is it possible to have an education system that mis-educates students while raising their test scores?” Ravitch asks. ”Yes, I think it is. We may soon prove it.”

Cassandra is speaking.  Are you listening? Do you believe her? 

I do.


  1. I believe her, too. And recommend that everyone read this extremely well thought-out blog.

    Merit pay (in the form that Ravitch assumes it will go down) is one of those things that policymakers do to say they have done something. As a policy model, it’s shiny and attractive: mostly carrot, and a little, after-effect stick (for those, it can be rationalized, that “deserve” some stick). A policy that makes decision-makers feel supremely efficient and meritorious. And a policy whose “unintended” consequences will be an even bigger gap between have and have-not schools.

    And I say this as a person who firmly believes that the way we are now paying teachers–the single salary scale–is idiotic.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — April 22, 2009 @ 11:28 am

  2. I agree with you on pay structures, Nancy. There’s a lot not to like, but Diane is on to something important. I’ve said this a thousand times. Here it is again: Accountability matters, but we have to get it right.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 22, 2009 @ 11:38 am

  3. Whatever we do on this issue we MUST dramatically amend the existing system of teacher compensation. It’s so bad, it borders on embarrassing. Nancy calls it idiotic. I say it’s stupid.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — April 22, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

  4. The thing that galls me, is that something like merit pay could be foisted on districts where even the local policy makers don’t want it, in the same way that NCLB has been, through the carrot/stick of Title I funds.

    And, before we institute merit pay for teachers, could be perhaps get administrators off fixed salary schedules?

    Comment by Rachel — April 24, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

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