Friday, April 16, 2010

Teacher Merit Pay: Why Not?

(News-Herald, April 15) The nicest thing I can say about Obama’s education plan is that it isn’t any dumber than Bush’s, which is like observing that it isn’t any worse to be crushed by dead rats than by dead squirrels. I do give this administration credit for admitting that it’s not possible to make every single American school student above average by 2014. Or by 5014, for that matter.
Every politician comes equipped with his own list of favorite education ideas. In the political world, they call these Initiatives for Reforming and Revitalizing Education. In the teaching world, we call them Ideas That Could Only Come From People Who Rarely See the Inside of a Classroom.
Several of these classics appear in the Obama plan, including merit pay.
Let’s skip over the question of how to determine merit. Judging merit is tricky—everyone can name really good and really bad teachers, but most of us work somewhere in between those extremes. I expect that I can find former students who think I did a great job and others who think I stunk. And that’s before we get to people who define merit as “gives my child lots of playing time” or “always gives my child a good grade.”
But lets pretend we somehow solved that issue. What are the other problems with merit pay?
Budgeting is the biggie. The current pay scale system has its flaws, but as a budgeting tool it’s hard to beat—school boards can project exactly what their personnel costs will be years into the future.
Merit pay creates two possible scenarios. In scenario one, we decide what individual merit will be worth and let the chips fall where they may. “Sorry folks,” says the school board. “But our teachers did such a great job this year we need an extra 200 grand to meet payroll.” In this scenario, budgeting is a mystery and the taxpayers root for teachers to do a lousy job.
In scenario two, the board sets its total merit budget, and that pie is sliced thick or thin depending on how many teachers earn dessert. The more teachers who do well, the less they all get paid. In this scenario, teachers in the district fight each other for their paycheck.
Both scenarios promise fiscal challenges and serious damage to the school and community atmosphere.
Obama’s folks want to use merit pay to help push for higher-quality teaching staffs, and that’s a great objective. Nobody would like to see a school filled with top-notch teachers more than the teachers in that school. But I remain skeptical because, in the pursuit of excellent teaching staffs, so few districts use the tools already at their disposal.
Market theory would tell you that districts would compete to get their pick of the best teachers, offering incentives to attract the best people, then interviewing and screening rigorously to get just the right fit before they hire. But they don’t. They trust to luck, which comes through just often enough to make them believe it’s a plan.
Districts could watch new teachers extra-carefully. The first few years make all the difference in a teacher’s growth, but if there’s no sign of potential or growth, districts can fire pre-tenured teachers for any reason at all, nipping weeds in the bud.
Districts could also check for something other than a pulse before granting tenure; it’s not automatic. And once granted, tenure does not give incompetent teachers a free pass. Tenure simply requires districts to do more than say, “You’re ugly and expensive, so you’re fired.” Teachers who don’t stack up can still be pressured, retrained, disciplined and, yes, fired. It just takes some work.
One irony is that teachers have always been willing to give up big bucks in exchange for job security and other intangibles. Districts can easily reward their best teachers with other intangibles—praise, recognition, responsibility, a voice in decisions, just generally treating teachers like grown-ups.
Bad teachers are a small but powerfully annoying group; I’d love to see them get out. Like many teachers, I wish that PSEA and NEA were more aggressive about pursuing quality in the profession. But lousy teachers pay union dues, too, so I don’t look for too much help there. I don’t think the feds will help much, and Obama still hasn’t called me to consult.
However, school districts that are serious about pursuing teacher quality can do it today, with the tools already at their disposal, and without having to spend a cent on merit pay.

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