Most people are familiar with RhINOs (Republicans in Name Only), which is a pejorative for Republican officials who differ from other Republicans on certain key issues.  With a new piece in Education Next, Stuart Buck and I would like to introduce to the policy lexicon the term MPINO — Merit Pay in Name Only.

Few merit pay programs for teachers manage to overcome union-fueled political opposition to be adopted and implemented.  We estimate, based on data from Vanderbilt’s National Center for Performance Incentives, that no more than 3.5% of all districts have anything even remotely resembling merit pay.

But even the few programs that aren’t blocked are largely co-opted and diluted so that they are little more than MPINO.  They tend to define merit as additional credentialing, such as paying for national board certification or simply additional degrees.  The bonuses tend to be small add-ons to the traditional salary schedule based entirely on seniority and credentials.  And the plans are frequently not fully implemented or quickly reversed.

The problem is that merit pay programs are trying to simulate the compensation systems that one might develop in a competitive market. But without the pressure and discipline of the market there is nothing to keep these plans sensible or permit the constant tinkering necessary to address gaming or other design weaknesses.  In short, we hold out little hope for merit pay improving achievement in the absence of meaningful choice and competition given the union ability to block, dilute, or co-opt merit pay proposals.

In addition, we suggest that the most powerful form of merit pay is the concern that inadequate performance might cause one to lose one’s job.  Without ending tenure and burdensome fair dismissal procedures, merit pay is unlikely to do much to change a teaching workforce that cannot lose jobs for sub-par performance.

Even if we see more programs that are called merit pay, we are unlikely to get more than MPINO.  Unfortunately, this won’t even result in  SAINO (Student Achievement in Name Only).

-Jay P. Greene

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