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CAH: Where’s the Evidence Merit Pay Will Work? Legislators: Um….

At the District 28 and 29 legislative crackerbarrel in Belle Fourche this afternoon, Senator Larry Rhoden (R-29/Union Center) said that South Dakota consistently ranks among the top five states in student test scores. That claim partly motivated my question to the four legislators present about what evidence they are looking at that says merit bonuses are the right solution to whatever problems our K-12 education system has:

(The mild amusement at 4:38 is Rep. Brunner's response to a gentleman behind me who tried to step outside and found the door locked.)

Now notice: I asked about evidence for the efficacy of merit pay versus other education policies (among the six counterplans I've proposed). Senator Rhoden said he never favored merit pay in the past and has never seen how it would be distributed fairly. He and Rep. Tom Brunner (R-29/Nisland) spoke of looking to the Teacher Compensation Assistance Program that we're no longer funding for examples of effective programs. I asked if any South Dakota schools had tried out merit bonuses under TCAP. No examples leapt to Senator Rhoden's mind. Reps. Dean Wink (R-29/Howes) and Betty Olson (R-28/Prairie City) remained silent on the question.

HB 1234 and merit pay feature prominently in current public discourse (much to the chagrin of a certain Senate Majority Leader). HB 1234 drew multiple questions at this crackerbarrel and at another this morning in Sturgis. Yet when asked for evidence that a key part of that plan, merit bonuses, will work, none of these four legislators could say yes. The only definite statements placed on the record came from Senator Rhoden, who questions the feasibility of merit pay.

That's not exactly a rousing justification for Governor Daugaard's flagship education reform.


  1. mike 2012.02.11

    They all looked like statues when you asked the question. I'm sure because they new they sould be on a blog.

  2. Steve Sibson 2012.02.11

    Cory, none of these legislators were on the Supercommittee who was to make sure any changes meant the approval of the administration.

  3. Supersweet 2012.02.11

    "South Dakota consistently ranks among the top five states in student test scores."

    What test scores are referenced here? ACT? SAT? NAEP? There are no other common test scores among states.

  4. Donald Pay 2012.02.11

    This has never been about using merit pay to improve education. All of this is coming from right wing think tanks and political organizers who want to undermine public education, not improve it. They know that merit pay destroys a collegial and cooperative work place, which will destroy public education. So they will measure success by falling test scores and a workplace that no one wants to go to.

    My non-profit attempted to do this several years ago. It was a mistake, and ended up being scrapped after two years. Similar to teachers, we are supposed to all work together for the good of our clients. It ended up causing a lot of headaches for supervisors. Rating people in the human services field is very difficult. The people who know which employees are doing the job well are colleagues, and you are supposed to learn from your colleagues, not compete with them.

  5. David Newquist 2012.02.12


    Donald Pay's experience is the same as others in organizations that have tried merit pay. He is also right that there is not one item the Governor's proposal that offers a substantive measure to improve the outcomes of education. It is all about disenfranchising teacher's workplace rights and reducing educational performance to turning human beings into subservient robots.

    COHE, when I was a negotiator, signed off on a merit plan, and immediately began to find that it quickly turns into to a power-wielding device based upon favoritism and personal vendetta. When 80 percent of the faculty did not qualify for merit bonuses, that simply notified them that they were not on the list of favorites and that what accomplishments and efforts that had made did not count for anything. Morale was so bad that most department chairs objected to the scheme because it put them on such a skeptical footing with the majority of their faculty and caused suspicion and mistrust among the faculty. It's an old story that can be obtained wherever it has been tried, if anyone cares to listen.

    The Dakota Writing Project had a powerfully successful program k-12 and beyond and had developed a system of student portfolios which measured student growth and achievement. One school system that had embraced the program with full support of the administration had even gained recognition of the National Writing Program as a model to be studied. Then the school board insisted upon a merit program, and what the portfolios measured was a sudden stalling of student achievement because the teachers were put in competition with each other rather than cooperation. A big factor was that the teachers who had developed the instruction methods and portfolio assessment procedures nearly all left for better paying jobs within the year that the merit program was applied. It also ended the DWP for that system because teachers decided that joining such collaborative efforts was no considered productive by the board and administration.

    The ultimate objective of the Governor's program is to make ill-informed but politically obedient dullards of the kind you encountered this morning,


  6. Sam Peil 2012.02.12

    Thank you for your commentary on education in SD. I have become an avid reader over the last few weeks. I attended the legislative crackerbarrel in Brookings yesterday morning. I am a mother two and a language arts teacher. I have concerns about the proposed legislation as both a parent and a teacher. It is very problematic that our legislators cannot point to the evidence that supports merit pay.

    When Senator Larry Tidemann commented on HB1234, he claimed that Harvard has research that supports merit pay. He did not cite this research or hand out copies. Because he did not present this specific research, I decided to look into it. I think he may be be referring to the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance report called "Cross-Country Evidence On Teacher Performance Pay." A review of the report can be found at the link below.

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.02.12

    A merit program killed DWP? That's a shame, David—thanks for that good South-Dakota-based empirical example!

    And Sam, great link! The one key sentence for our purposes: "...drawing policy conclusions about teacher performance pay on the basis of this analysis is not warranted." Senator Tidemann, prepare to change your vote!

  8. Michael Black 2012.02.12

    This is not a simplistic Democrats vs Republicans issue. This is bureaucrats trying to improve the student test scores with the wrong tools. It is fiscally wrong to waste money on techniques that at best produce no results and at worst cause harm.

  9. Roger Elgersma 2012.02.13

    texas has fifteen thousand dollars bonus for good teachers. i am not sure if it is in place long enough to make a change or if they always had it. but I do know they have a lousy school system.

  10. Jana 2012.02.13

    Well "Hons"...the Argus is reporting that Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s education reform plan passed the House moments ago on a 41-28 vote.

    I would hope that each and every legislator goes on the record on how this bill will improve education in SD.

    Keloland's interview with an Aberdeen board member who didn't think the plan would be effective... "He exchanged e-mails with the governor who argues the current system isn't producing an increase in student achievement that matches an increase in funding throughout the years."

    I don't think they heard the conversation on 'this plan improves student achievement how?'

  11. Ryan Olson 2012.02.13

    I'm sorry to bring this up again but I can't help but to provide evidence that Daugaard is no more out to get teachers and education than Obama:

    From the WSJ:
    "It's time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones," Mr. Obama said. "If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there's no excuse for that person to continue teaching."

    Mr. Obama said that teachers who are rewarded for excellence should help their schools improve.

    Teacher unions said Tuesday that they welcomed Mr. Obama's overall approach and could support merit-pay plans as long as they are fair to teachers. The presidents of the two largest teachers' unions said they were confident Mr. Obama would only support proposals that meet that test.

    "This is a president who actually respects teachers for who they are and what they do. We can work many of these things out," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

    Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said that merit-pay plans should be negotiated to ensure they are not run in an arbitrary way, and he cautioned: "If you pay one teacher more you have to pay someone else less."

    Mr. Van Roekel rejected another Obama proposal to pay math and science teachers more in hopes of filling the recruitment gap. "

    SO if a Democrat proposes merit pay and paying math and science teachers more............Where is your evidence Mr. President???????

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.02.14

    Agreed 100%, Ryan. The President is as wrong as our Governor on this issue.

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