Running Heading: Should teaching be based on merit pay? icon

Running Heading: Should teaching be based on merit pay?

Special education merit 1

Running Heading: Should teaching be based on merit pay?

Should teaching be based on merit pay?

Evidence from special education teachers

Jennifer Escamilla

Regina Hernandez

Irene Navarro

Deborah Medina

Cynthia Serna-Biddle

Dr. Enrique Murillo

EDUC 607: Introduction to Educational Research

December 1, 2008

California State University, San Bernardino

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The idea of merit pay, teachers paid based on their performance, has been circling for decades.  In this investigation, a survey regarding merit pay was given to general and special education educators in elementary, middle, and high school.  The data revealed some differences in opinions between general and special education teachers, but not any significant ones. During interviews with special education teachers, three themes consistently came up. These included student motivation, special education learning environment, and significance of accommodations and modifications.  In our study we discuss possible interpretations of this result. 

^ Statement of Problem

In the current state of education, there has been a long running controversy about the use of merit pay systems to compensate teachers that produce students with higher standardized test scores. Recently there has been a lot of political discussion in California regarding the use of state tests as a measure to evaluate teaching performance. There is little existing research that examines the implications of such a system for special education teachers. Special education teachers face unique challenges in preparing their students for standardized examinations. Among these challenges include the use of accommodations and modifications during the assessment process; teaching students with learning, physical, and mental disabilities; simultaneously preparing students for the state exams and trying to meet individualized student goals; and working with students that are more than two years below grade level.

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^ Literature Review

Some states and districts have already adopted different compensation plans to reward teachers with mixed results. Merit pay is defined as a system of teacher’s payment that rewards superior job performance and is viewed as a potential solution for the plaguing issue of how to raise student test scores. There are many professional and ethical concerns associated with ‘pay for performance teaching’; among these issues include the effectiveness of merit pay systems in increasing student achievements, maintaining teacher motivation and promoting teacher collaboration in a merit workplace, and the procedure of standardized testing (Dee 2004).

Effectiveness of Merit Programs

Various studies show mixed results regarding the effectiveness of merit pay. According to Dee, 29 states had initiated a system of merit pay in their public school systems by 1986. By 1997, the majority of these states had discontinued or drastically revised their problems due to ineffectiveness and the emergence of undesired consequences from creating a merit system within the schools (Dee 2004). Some of the undesired consequences included some teachers displaying a “me” attitude when collaborating with their peers; teachers using dishonest methods in their classrooms; and creating a competitive atmosphere within the school. Many school districts also had difficulty retaining and hiring new teachers because the inexperienced teachers were less likely to benefit from the merit system.

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There is little direct empirical evidence to show that merit pay systems increase student achievement in public school systems. Goldhaber attributes this to the fact that the “nature of teaching” is a poor fit for monetary compensations (2008). “Pay for performance teaching” only measures one aspect of an educator’s job duty, other aspects such as promoting socio-emotional development and creating responsible citizens cannot be measured by a standardized assessment. The majority of research reviewed concluded that merit pay did not produce consistent and significant growth.

According to Goldhaber, there are two schools of thought that explain why merit pay is met with such resistance in public education. The first idea is that the nature of teaching has so many dimensionalities that make it difficult to evaluate objectively. Merit pay has also shown to have a demoralizing effect at school sites by introducing an element of competition to a once collaborative environment. A contrasting school of thought argues that there is nothing inherent about merit pay that makes it incompatible with the educational system. This school of thought uses private schools to illustrate that merit pay can be successful. The main difference between private and public education that was identified was the influence of teacher’s unions in public school systems.

Teacher Motivation and Merit Pay

According to Kelley, there are three ideas that explain how teachers are motivated. The first theory is called the expectancy theory, which states that in order for teachers to be motivated to change they need to know and understand the goals and believe that the

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achievement of these goals is in their realm of control. The teachers must believe that these results will be valuable to them. The second idea is called the goal-setting theory, this states that employees are more likely to be motivate by goals when the goals are specific, challenging, and worthwhile. The last belief is systems theory, which suggests that employees can be motivated when organizational resources and policies are aligned (Kelley, 1999).

Kelley also mentions that research has found time and again that teachers are motivated more by intrinsic rewards, such as seeing student improvement or working collaboratively with their peers than they are by intrinsic motivators such as bonus pay. Kelley cited Johnson as noting that “teachers regard professional efficacy, not money, as the primary motivator in their work.” Financial incentives are thought to motivate teachers in a limited capacity, to meet specific, measurable goals such as obtaining extra certification or to take on a more difficult teaching assignment (Kelley 1999).

Special Education

Students in special education fall under two umbrellas: Mild to Moderate Disabilities (M/M) and Moderate to Severe Disabilities (M/S). Students that fall under Mild to Moderate Disabilities have specific learning disabilities, mild to moderate mental retardation, attention deficit, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, or emotional disturbance. On the other hand, students that fall under Moderate to Severe Disabilities have autism, deaf-blindness, moderate to severe mental retardation, multiple disabilities, or, serious emotional disturbance. (State Of California Commission on Teacher Credentialing)

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Testing and Accommodations

President Bush almost immediately after his inauguration proposed No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB was signed into law on January 8th, 2002.  No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) reauthorized the main federal law affecting education from kindergarten through high school called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). “NCLB is built on four principles: accountability for results, more choices for parents, greater local control and flexibility, and an emphasis on doing what works based on scientific research.” (U.S. Department of Education) The No Child Left Behind is holding teachers more accountable for instruction that is effective.

The No Child Left Behind clearly states the responsibilities of schools for including special education students in their assessment programs. Special education students are required to take standardized test that are used for all students within a district. The standardized tests are designed to show if a student is meeting that state’s academic standards. (Harvey 2004, p. 68) In the state of California, students take The California Standardized Test (CST) in the subject areas of in English-language arts, mathematics, science, and history-social science. Tests were developed to assess students' knowledge of the California content standards. The California Standardized Test is multiple-choice with the exception of a writing component that is administered to grades fourth and seventh.

In addition, The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1997 requires that students with disabilities be included in general state and district-wide assessment

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programs with appropriate accommodations where necessary (Cox, Herner, Demczyk, and Nieberding 2006, p.346). However, not all special education students take the CST. In response to the U.S Department of Education, an alternate assessment was developed under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) that provided flexibility to states to more appropriately measures the achievement of certain students with disabilities. (California Department of Education) The California Modified Assessment (CMA) is based on modified academic standards. The modified academic achievement standards are required to be “challenging for eligible students and measure a student’s mastery of grade-level content, but are less difficult than grade-level achievement standards.(California Department of Education)

Elementary mild to moderate special education students in grades three through five who have an individualized education program (IEP) and meet the eligibility criteria adopted by the State Board of Education (SBE) are eligible to take The California Modified Assessment. The criteria required in order to take CMA include special education students that took the CST and scored below basic or far below basic in the subject tested, students that scored proficient or advanced on the California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA) Level II-V in two previous years, and evidence of academic progress or lack of progress based on multiple measurements over a period of time, signifying that the student will not achieve grade-level standards on the CSTs, even with accommodations.

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The student’s IEP team annually selects which assessment the student with disability will take either the CMA or CST, and in which subject area. (California Department of Education)

Recently, in 1999 California State law authorized the development of the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) to demonstrate grade level competency in writing, reading, and mathematics. Students in California public schools must pass CAHSEE to earn a high school diploma. Previously students with disabilities were exempt from taking the CAHSEE as designated in their IEP. Currently, students with disabilities could either pass or receive a “local waiver pursuant to Education Code Section 60851(c).

Education Code Section 60851(c) permits local school boards to grant waiver of the CAHSEE requirement to students with disabilities that take the CAHSEE using modifications and receive the equivalent of a passing score.” (California Department of Education) CAHSEE rules specify accommodations that students with disabilities be permitted to use specified in the student’s IEP or Section 504 Plan for the use on the CAHSEE, standardized testing, or for use during classroom instruction and assessment. “An accommodation is a change in the testing environment or process that does not alter what the CAHSEE measures or affect the comparability of scores, whereas a modification is a change that fundamentally alters what the CAHSEE measures of affects the comparability of scores.” (California Department of Education)

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^ Research Question and Foreshadowed Problems

The purpose of this study is to determine how merit pay may affect mild to moderate special educators differently than general educators. Merit pay based on testing may be overlooking issues such as unique, individualized accommodations or modifications and specific learning environments that some special education students need to both learn and assess their learning.

This problem could be clarified by a survey given to both areas of educators (general and special education). The survey will be anonymous with pencil markings on the paper serving as a code to help identify special education teachers. The participants will have up to a week and half to respond to the survey. Another way to clarify the problem is by interviewing special education teachers and asking questions related to merit pay and its possible implementation.

^ Definition of Terms

  1. Merit pay is a proposed system of teacher compensation that rewards enhanced job performance and is viewed as a potential solution for the constant issue of how to improve student test scores.

  2. Special education is instruction that is specifically designed to meet the individual needs of a child with a disability. This means education that is individually developed to address a specific child’s needs that result from his or her disability. Accommodations and modifications can be developed to assist a student with their daily school work or standardized tests.

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^ Significance of the Proposed Study

The purpose of our study is just in case Merit Pay does occur, how would it affect mild to moderate special education teachers? The implementation of an incentive program such as merit pay may discourage people to teach special education. Currently, there is a shortage of qualified special education teachers; could we afford to implement merit pay? Special education teachers should be paid based on effort, dedication and their specialty in special education. This basic study may encourage further research to look into more practice systems.

^ Design and Methodology

Subjects and Case

How much different could special education teachers feel about merit pay versus general educators? What are factors that general educators may not see as significant when teaching and testing students with disabilities compared to special education teachers?

To get a glimpse of these teachers’ perspectives, a survey was developed and circulated. The survey was created by our group and consisted of 15 questions in which half were “filler” questions, while the other half targeted how teachers felt about merit pay with the inclusion of special education. The surveys were distributed to all grade levels of education, K-12. Administrators gave permission to distribute the surveys to teachers both male and female with age ranges from 24 to 65. All opinions were included in the final count, all teachers were aware that their names would not be used.

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Instrumentation/ Data Collection

We wanted to see how special educators felt about merit pay and their area of education may drastically differ from opinions of other areas of education. The survey was developed by the collection of our own questions. The filler questions were put in so that both types of educators, general and special, could not identify that we were targeting the special education population. We wanted the educators to know they were being surveyed on their opinions toward merit pay, but felt that if they knew that it had an underlying investigation toward special education they might respond with some bias toward or against special education. The final survey had 15 questions, with 8 questions aimed at special education. The survey stated ideas and asked the educator to circle how they agreed and felt about the idea from a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 representing “not strongly” and 5 representing “very strongly” (Appendix A).

After the surveys were distributed we each interviewed at least one special education teacher in order to further understand their opinions from the survey and other issues that it could not reveal. The survey was helpful in identifying general opinions and trends toward merit pay, but was not clear on the reasoning behind the special education teachers’ responses. These interviews helped us gain some comprehension of the ideas.

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Data Treatment and Procedures

Our survey was the final draft of several rewrites, we did not have a pilot survey and now feel that it would had been more beneficial to the study if we had more time to distribute one. The surveys were given to 143 teachers by work mailboxes or via email.

Surveys that were given to special education teachers had little codes or markings on the back of the surveys to identify that when the survey was turned in we knew that the responses were from the perspective of a special education teacher. Teachers were given a week and a half to answer and submit their opinions. Once surveys were turned in, each group member counted the number of responses and submitted them to the data collector to find the averages for each question.

Our inductive approach to the qualitative study also included several interviews with special education teachers. These interviews were conducted by asking the teachers to go into more depth by explaining their reasoning for each response. The interviews were coded and chunked into 10 themes. After looking over the themes, 3 were chosen for discussion.

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Presentation of Findings

The results from the surveys that our group was most concerned about were the special education questions. None of the “filler” questions are included in this section.

Overall there were not many significant differences between the responses between the special education and general educators.

Table 1: Survey results from general education teachers and special education teachers





with large differences.

Question #


Avg. of General Education

Avg. of Special Education


^ How strongly do you feel about scores from special education students being included toward merit pay?




How strongly do you feel that special education students’ accommodations are followed during standardized tests?




How strongly do you feel that extra time would positively affect students’ performance while testing?



Table 1 shows that there were 3 questions from the survey that the responses from general educators and special education educators differed. The differences are not greatly significant but do cause questions of why is there a difference?

Table 2 shows more a visual comparison of the responses from teachers. As you can see the responses were not greatly different but create some questions. To assist us in these questions, several interviews from special education teachers were conducted to allow us to see what was behind their reasoning for their responses.

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Table 2: Bar graph comparison of survey responses from teachers.

The interviews revealed ten themes for their reason, but three of them were consistently found in all the interviews. These three themes include the student motivation in testing and learning, the type of learning environment desired for special education classes for test taking and the importance of accommodations and modifications being done for special education students. What these revealed will be discussed in a later discussion.

Limitations of the Design

The many limitations that we encountered from this design included time constraints, survey clarification and lack of a pilot run of the survey. We found after a week that we needed more time to receive survey responses from teachers and to conduct more interviews. This extra time may have lead to a different survey outcome and more clarification of the responses from the more interviews. Another limitation to our design was that the survey did have several questions that survey takers found confusing.

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This confusion may had altered the survey averages and have inaccurate responses from the teachers. We believe that we might have avoided this problem if we had sent out a pilot survey to a selected group of teachers to see what needed to be added or clarified. Again, time constraints prevented this process from happening and may have affected the survey outcomes.


Our study found that both general and special educators feel that a merit pay incentive system for teachers is a poor method of improving student test scores. There must be other unidentified methods that will provide incentives for teachers.

The survey did not provide an accurate assessment because of its vagueness. Regardless of how a merit pay question was structured there were very few, if any, responses higher than 3.0. The interviews provided the most accurate reflection of those who were questioned. There were ten codes and chunks from the interviews: test difficulty for students, teacher burnout, awarding pay due to improvement, small classroom size helping special education students, more testing time, accommodations and modifications, student motivation, cultural literacy, student testing and students as individuals, unique situations.

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The special education learning environment, accommodations and modifications to the test and student motivation were consistently discussed during the interviews and have been considered of most importance for our study These issues were brought up in interviews such as:

“Testing time to finish tests would definitely be an assets to the students who sincerely strive for success and this time should be granted since students do perform at different levels and with different learning skills. “

“I feel modifications and accommodations are beneficial to special education students during testing. I actually feel they are essential to the success and endeavors these students strive to meet”

“Students have a lack of motivation when taking tests; they at times feel beaten and do not want to even try any more. They are set in their ways.”

Our research verifies our initial hypothesis which was that merit pay would not benefit teachers who teach Special Education because of the various learning styles and disabilities which range from emotional disturbance to mild, moderate and severe learning handicaps.

^ Recommendations/More Factors

After compiling our data and listening to the suggestions of our survey population we have determined that future surveys should be conducted in two phases. First would be a pilot survey, which would allow us to refine and/or provide better question for our

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participants. The second phase would be to provide a final survey that was the result of the pilot survey.

Also, we felt that the codes and chunks we identified should be used in the development of a unique formula that would allow us to quantify the data compilation. This would make the information provided by the respondents more meaningful and accurate to their particular teaching assignment.

Both public and private schools should be included in future questioning. Since both provide student instruction any quantification of data that does not include both could be deemed less than accurate.

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California Department of Education. CMA Participation Criteria and Definition of Terms. Retrieved from

California Department of Education. STAR 2008 Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program Parent/Guardian Guide to the Assessment (CMA) [Data file].

Retrieved from Modified

California Department of Education. California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) Questions and Answers [Data file]. Retrieved from

Cox, M. L., Herner, J. G., Demczyk, M. J., & Nieberding, J. J. (2006). Provision of testing accommodations for students with disabilities on statewide assessments: Statistical links with participation and discipline rates. Remedial and Special Education, 27(6), 346-354.

Dee, Thomas, Benjamin Keys, (2004). Does Merit Pay Reward Good Teachers?

Evidence from a Randomized Experiment. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 23(3), 471-488. Retrieved November 3, 2008, from ABI/INFORM Global database. (Document ID: 659594551).

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Goldhaber, D, DeArmond, M, Player, D, & Choi, H (2008). Why Do So Few

Public Schools Districts Use Merit Pay? Journal of Education Finance, 33, 262-


Harvey, Cathryn (2004). Special Education Solutions in the Age of NCLB.

T.H.E Journal, 68.

Kelley, C (1999). The Motivational Impact of School-Based Performance Awards.

Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education 12:4, 309-326.

State of California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Education Specialist


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Appendix A

Merit Pay Survey

Answer the following questions based on how strongly you feel on a scale from 1 (not strongly) to 5 (very strongly).

  1. How likely are you to support a merit pay system?

1 2 3 4 5

not strongly very strongly

  1. If students’ scores improve it means students were well educated.

1 2 3 4 5

not strongly very strongly

  1. Merit paid teachers will work harder and produce better results, (i.e. higher test scores, graduation rates?)

1 2 3 4 5

not strongly very strongly

  1. How well do you feel you prepare your students for state testing?

1 2 3 4 5

not strongly very strongly

  1. Merit pay will cause favoritism amongst administrators.

1 2 3 4 5

not strongly very strongly

7.) Merit pay change the integrity of teacher, i.e. dishonesty, cheating.

1 2 3 4 5

not strongly very strongly

8.) Merit pay would be more beneficial to the students.

1 2 3 4 5

not strongly very strongly

9.) Special education students perform on standardized tests.

1 2 3 4 5

not strongly very strongly

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10.) How do you feel about scores from special education students being included on Merit pay?

1 2 3 4 5

not strongly very strongly

11.) How well do you think special education students’ accommodations are followed during standardized tests?

1 2 3 4 5

not strongly very strongly

12.) Since some students perform at varying levels, how strongly do you feel that merit pay would be effective for teachers to qualify for merit pay as long as student academic performance is incrementally increasing?

1 2 3 4 5

not strongly very strongly

13.) How strongly do you feel that the number of students per teacher should be a factor when determining if a teacher has earned or qualified for merit pay?

1 2 3 4 5

not strongly very strongly

14.) How strongly do you feel that extra time would positively affect your students performance while testing?

1 2 3 4 5

not strongly very strongly

15.) How much do you feel modifications and accommodations are beneficial to Special Education students during testing?

1 2 3 4 5

not strongly very strongly

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