Friday, July 13, 2007


(News-Herald, July 12)Teacher merit pay is back in the news. Some pilot programs in Minnesota, for example, have met with support from teachers, and look to expand.

This is a bit of a change. The NEA has always been opposed to merit pay, a position that we can add to the sixty gazillion somewhat boneheaded stances that the NEA has taken over the years.

Many teachers chafe at not being treated like professionals, but traditional teacher pay scales, based on years on the job alone, is not how professionals are paid. And for many teachers, what really chafes is the realization that they work twice as hard as some of their colleagues, for exactly the same pay.

For a merit pay system to work, two basic pitfalls have to be avoided.

First is the issue of measurement.

In any system where numbers are used to measure quality, it’s crucial that the numbers mean what you think they mean.

One of the weakest links in the PSSA system is the assumption that the high-stakes test given to all PA students shows how well-educated they are. It doesn’t. Student scores on the standardized test are an excellent measure of how the students do on a standardized test. What that has to do with actual knowledge, wisdom or education is open to debate, but I feel certain that student scores are not a reliable measure of their education or their teacher’s quality.

Much ado was made recently of a study showing a disconnect between a hospital’s cost and its mortality rate. Figures suggest that patients are more likely to die at more expensive hospitals. Or maybe not. You’re terribly terribly sick, and you want to make sure you get the best care possible. Do you check yourself into St. Ignatius of the Presitigiously High Pricetag, or Bob’s Community Discount Hospital?

The high-prestige, high-cost hospital attracts all the worst cases. The best way for it to improve its mortality rate? Find ways to turn away difficult, inclined-to-die patients. One of the predictable outcomes of school evaluations based on test is scores is to make pariahs out of poorly-testing students.

Are there other ways to measure teacher quality? If every school administrator was excellent, we could trust their judgment. But there are plenty of bad administrators who already find ways to take out their petty personal vendettas on particular teachers; giving these bozos the ability to control a teacher’s pay will only increase the carnage and give bad administrators the ability to drive every decent teacher out of the building. That doesn’t benefit anybody.

We could come up with a rubric, a clear-cut objective set of measures of teacher quality. Three problems here—one is that so much of the best teaching is not so clear cut, second is that the rubric has to be set to measure what you want it to measure, and the third is that administrators then have to follow the rubric and not just ignore it when it gives them an answer they don’t like.

A real, useful teacher evaluation and remediation program is the great missing link of the ed biz. It would take a lot of time and effort, but until then any “merit” will be awarded randomly, and there will be little to do with incompetent teachers except hope they’ll get the urge to retire quietly to Florida.

The other challenge with merit pay is, well, the pay part.

If you work somewhere that uses a bonus pay system, you know the problem. Sometimes bonuses are based on the individual job performance. Sometimes they’re based on the performance of the corporation as a whole. And sometimes bonuses are based on whether or not the company wants to spend money on bonuses.

No public school district in the country will ever find itself in a position to say, “Well, we cleared an extra 100 grand this year, so we’re going to hand it out as bonuses to the best teachers.”

Instead, it’s far more likely that school districts, strapped for cash and wishing to avoid a tax increase, will “discover” that nobody on staff “merits” the highest level of pay.

A poorly-constructed pay system based on merit becomes an easy way for a district to cut teacher pay arbitrarily. And if too many safeguards are locked in to avoid that scenario, the district could find itself with wildly fluctuating payroll costs that it can neither control nor predict.

Neither the problems of evaluation nor the problems of money are insurmountable, but the solutions require leadership, vision, time, and a whole lot of work.

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