Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Merit Pay for Teachers?

For the first time in a long time, Republicans now control the Indiana State legislature and it looks like education reform is high on the agenda.  One element of the measures proposed is merit pay for teachers.  In theory, I am very much in favor of rewarding our teachers astronomically for those who demonstrate massive giftedness in our public schools.  I couldn't do what they do, given the behavior issues and ADHD environment.

Here's the deal.  Merit pay is a bad idea if it is solely linked to student scores.  This rewards the teachers who, either by politics or even incompetence manage to get the easy students.  The biggest problem in the classroom is the massive behavior management issue, not the incompetence of teachers.  Merit pay linked to scores does not take into account the incredibly gifted teachers who take on the children in our schools who are overwhelmingly likely to spend the majority of their life in prison or on the streets.

So merit pay is a great idea to me but only if it is administered in the light of a whole range of competencies.  What we need more than anything right now is brilliant classroom managers.  Almost anyone with a classroom full of "normal" children could improve test scores.  There just aren't very many classrooms like that in the failing schools of Indiana.

P.S. There were only two passing schools in Marion last year and, because the failing schools shewed their worst and dullest to them, there may not be any passing schools this year.  The problem is not the teachers; it's the kids as they have emerged from their "families."


Jeremy said...

Good thoughts. I agree that is one of the major problems in our failing school systems -- behavioral problems. I'm a teacher myself -- I teach part-time at a private school. The school itself is good. For the most part, the students behave well. In fact, this year alone, I have had no discipline issues and I haven't had to send a student out of the class or to the office for behavioral problems.

But, in order to have a little more money, I decided to sub-teach. That was a mistake. The kids in the public system in my area are, for the most part (there are certainly exceptions), are really bad: little to no interest in education itself. At one school there was no policy on cell phones: all the students had their cells out, texting, calling friends, listening to music -- all in the classroom (admin and faculty, although they didn't have any policy on them, they were constantly on watch with the whole student body in terms of monitoring what they were doing).

But that is the system. And the higher offices seem to hold teachers accountable for things in the classroom -- the misbehavior -- for which the teachers shouldn't be responsible. It all goes back to the home and the parents -- how involved they are in their kid's education and life in general. If you have a bad home, you're going to have bad kids grow up acting badly in society.

The household codes in Ephesians and Colossians really hit "home" when it comes to our educational system. What do we really need to restructure? One good start is the home. That would take a cultural readjustment and could take generations.

Ken Schenck said...

I completely agree that the homes are at the root of the problem. I'll probably get fried for saying this, but I wonder if freedom in society should be linked to personal responsibility somehow. We won't let you die, and we want everyone to be free, but freedom presumes healthy participation in society. If you don't want us telling you what to do, then you'll have to participate.

Anonymous said...

There is also the issue of whether or not people are duly rewarded for being responsible, for "playing by the rules". Over the last thirty years, this has been less and less the case for working class people. More and more good jobs have been shipped overseas, only to be replaced by minimum wage jobs here to the extent that they are replaced at all. - FrGregACCA

Scott F said...

We can agree that these incentives can be set up in such a way as to distort behavior in undesirable ways - teaching the test, excluding low performing students from testing, outright cheating, etc.

More fundamentally, however, providing monetary incentives to existing workers has been shown to have little long-term effect on actual performance. I believe it was Demmings who said that employees are working as hard as they are going to under current conditions. No amount of sloganeering or incentives is likely to budge productivity for more than a few weeks. It is up to management (remember managers?) to create an environment in which productivity can increase. I suspect this results from a human psychology which resists long-term deviations of satisfaction from am individuals average level combined with the fact that measurements are frequently influenced more by factors beyond our control than by our own actions. Distinguishing the two is key to improving performance and yet is the one thing that gets caught up in ideological struggles over the bases of human nature.

The lack of quality research on teacher effectiveness and education in general is frightening. One meta-analysis found that the only way to identify a candidate who will be a "highly effective teacher" is to find the ones who have been "highly effective" in the past. Even the Gates Foundation jumped in to the Small High School movement only to find that those high-performing small schools were balanced by an equal concentration of poorly performing small schools. No one bothered to check both ends of the distribution! With so little reliable information to go on, designing incentives would seem an impossible task - except by applying the aforementioned ideological tests.

There is a tendency today to blame the teachers for all of our educational problems. I am glad to see a somewhat more nuanced view that incorporates the social conditions a child experiences but let's not blame the parents and then throw up our hands. There is plenty of blame to go around. Society as a whole (and each of us as a member) must accept our share of responsibility for the situation. American squabbling over culture-war issues, ideological tug-of-wars and insistence that our dollars not be used to educate the children of others has lead to a system in which education is sub-optimized - schools compete to be "above average" while causing the system as a whole to actually decline in quality.

FrGregACCA said...

Scott F: what I'm saying is this: the students in private schools know, for the most part, that they will go to college, and then, probably law school, med school, or some other form of professional or graduate education. They know that if they work hard in school, they will be rewarded,, for the most part, with a prosperous, upper-middle class life.

Most students in most public schools these days? Not so much. They can't even look forward to a reasonably decent-paying union scale factory job. Their options? Burger King, McDonald's, or the military.

JohnM said...


You have a point. In fact,freedom in society is linked to responsibility somehow - just not consistently and not always rationally.

Lori Border said...

Good discussion. I am a public high school teacher in a small, rural town in northern Illinois. Relatively speaking, we have great students and a high performing school. However, to hold teachers accountable for the performance of their students to such a degree as to base pay on such, is like holding dentists accountable for the cavities people show up to have filled. They have no control over the oral hygiene, dietary habits, or genetic predisposition of the person's dental makeup. The dentist does the best he can with each individual patient.

Scott F said...

Yes, Greg. There is not always a clear connection between effort and reward. Was there ever? I suppose the holy grail of education is to find a way to allow students to rise above their circumstances. We can't make all children above average, of course, but it would be nice to not punish children for factors beyond their control. Unfortunately the discussion is focused on blaming teachers (and their unions), saving money and feeling better about your pet theory. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to take my theory for a walk ! ;)