So I read some interesting research on student incentive progams which has a couple of very important paragraphs. Here’s the abstract:

This paper describes a series of school-based randomized trials in over 250 urban schools designed to test the impact of financial incentives on student achievement. In stark contrast to simple economic models, our results suggest that student incentives increase achievement when the rewards are given for inputs to the educational production function, but incentives tied to output are not effective. Relative to popular education reforms of the past few decades, student incentives based on inputs produce similar gains in achievement at lower costs. Qualitative data suggest that incentives for inputs may be more effective because students do not know the educational production function, and thus have little clue how to turn their excitement about rewards into achievement. Several other models, including lack of self-control, complementary inputs in production, or the unpredictability of outputs, are also consistent with the experimental data.

Notice the sentence in bold. Incentives for outputs (like let’s say student test scores) does not improve performance. Incentive for inputs (like increased collaboration, more training, working in high needs schools) does. Of course, the benefits gained by the incentives are not terribly strong (with the exception in the study of students being paid to read more) and so any benefit from paying teachers for changing the inputs to education may be minimal.

The merit pay for teachers movement has it all wrong, and the very people in promoting merit pay for teachers have access to this research. In fact, the list of acknowledgements at the beginning of the paper is a veritable who’s who of the leading education reformers in the US.