Saturday, February 17, 2007

What's Wrong With Merit Pay for Teachers?



As a former educator (guess I still am in some ways)I need a lot of space to tell you why even though merit pay in principle is good, all the specific proposals for merit pay I have seen would be bad. Maybe very bad.

Might as well go right to the jump, 'cause I am going to need some space here- click "Saturday" below and scroll down.....

7 Comments:

Blogger Mark Moore (Moderator) said...

It seems unjust that the best teacher your children ever had and the worst teacher your children ever had should be paid the same. By the end of this article, I hope to explain why currently proposed "merit pay" plans would not for the most part correct that perceived injustice. I also want to float a merit pay plan by you that would.

The first problem with "merit pay" is the definition of the words "merit" and "pay". Let's deal with "pay”, or "compensation" first. An astute bunch like you might have already guessed by the picture of the "merit of legion" medal what my first point will be- people are motivated by things other than money. Did the people who won the "legion of merit" medal do it for the money?

Teachers are not holding back on how well they teach until someone gives them more money for it. Instead, what this is about is what is being taught, and how it is being taught. Some people at the top have an agenda. There are things they want taught, things that include not only knowledge but attitudes, values, and habits. The people actually with the children every day don't seem to be buying into all of what those at the top of the pyramid want, hence the call from the top for "increased measurement" of success in accomplishing their goals, not the community's goals, not the parent's goals, not the goals of the teachers or the children themselves.

High-value testing always distorts the curriculum. The tests that teachers give all year have come to mean little or nothing. The test that the central authority gives is all that counts, so anything not on that test gets short-changed. Teachers on the ground see that the state test is not perfect. It leaves off a lot of stuff they think it is in the child's best interest to know about. "Merit pay" tied to state test results is yet another way to pressure teachers, parents, school boards, communities, and students to jettison all of their agendas in favor of the state’s agenda alone.

Even before merit pay, when the administration alone was judged on state test scores, distortion was extreme. My final year as a science teacher had my supervisor telling me that every class was to be a math or English class, since that was what was on the state test. Even though the schedule said “science”, the actual content of what I was to teach should include the narrow types of math and writing measured on the state test. I was also to help the English teacher grade papers, since she did not have enough time to do all of her “measuring”. I wanted to teach science. My position was that Western Civilization had developed a core body of knowledge that should be passed on to the next generation, even if it wasn’t on the state test. Central authorities don’t care for “core bodies of knowledge” that have been handed down from one generation to the next. They prefer their subjects to be more pliable. People who know a lot are too hard to manipulate. Their preference is for “skills”, “values” and propaganda unconnected to either logic or history.

A lack of financial incentives is not what is holding teachers back from teaching better. It is a lack of discipline in the classroom, an avalanche of paperwork, and the stress and strain of “measuring” the advancement of the state’s agenda to the exclusion of everyone else’s that is holding them back. Nobody who ever won a Legion of Merit did it for the money. They did it because they cared about those around them. Relieving the pressure from above (that is, the weight of the state agenda that is often opposed to what the teacher and the community feel is in the child’s real best interests) will make for better teachers. But of course, what they will be teaching is not necessarily what the self-anointed want for the rest of us, and so we seldom hear such ideas put forth by the political-hireling class or the corporate media.

Now you may object that in the business world, everything is measured, so teachers should not complain if we want to “measure” them as well. That brings us to the definition of “merit”. Perhaps you have been in a large organization where “merit” was defined operationally as “whoever could kiss up to the boss the best”. Of course, in time the free market will correct such injustices. The truly good employees will find their way to jobs where they will be measured by their real productivity. Employees who fawn over bosses but who don’t serve customers well will eventually impact the bottom line. If there is a corporate culture where those lower down just tell the bosses what they want to hear instead of adjusting based on what customers are saying then the corporation will eventually go broke. In the business sector, even the bosses have to listen to the customers, or people will take their business elsewhere.

Now follow me on this one. Applying all the above to the schools, we see right now that the state, the central authority, is really the boss. Who are the customers? It’s the citizens. I say it should be the parents and children and communities. But to the state, it sees itself and the mega-corps who buy influence as the customers! In the real world, the business world, you had better measure the right thing. You had better measure “merit” with what is really merit or the free market will punish you. And they are! They just have a disagreement with me, and I hope you as well, over who the customers are. They think they are the company and the customers rolled into one. At the least, they are listening to only the segment of the population who write large campaign donation checks. As a result, the people you and I consider customers, are leaving the system even though they are still being made to pay for it. Good teachers are leaving the system because they don’t buy into the state’s definition of merit.

The government is like a huge corporation that has picked the wrong things to measure. Let’s say they are a hamburger chain, like McDonalds. They even have the power to tax you in order to give everyone their hamburgers “for free”. They decide that they want their hamburgers made to certain exacting standards which they will determine, and that they want people to feel good about Ronald McDonald and other clowns. Since they are the government, people can walk in and order their burgers for “free”.

Suppose someone does not want onions? Suppose someone wants a salad? Too bad for them. Input from below is rejected. Corporate HQ will tell the customers what a good lunch ought to look like. After all, they are the “food experts”. The company will have a measurement system in place to determine “merit” for purposes of employee bonuses. Employees who make and serve burgers most like the exacting standards sent down from HQ (regardless of what the customer wants) will get bonuses. Employees who get the most customers to write essays about why clowns should be treated seriously and with dignity will get bonuses.

Do they have a measurement system in place? Yes. Is it a good one? No. It defines “merit” the wrong way because it does not understand who the real customers are. People will start going to Wendy’s and elsewhere even if they have to pay again out of their own pocket. Employees who wish to retain shreds of personal dignity will find work elsewhere. And this is exactly what is happening with our government-school system.

Now you may argue that there is an indirect feedback mechanism called “elections” whereby if citizens don’t like the way merit is measured they can change them. The difficulty with that is 1) they know that local school board election can’t change it and 2) their desires are short circuited by a two-party system that no longer even provides the illusion of choice. Republican President George Bush backed Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy’s plan to federalize community schools. We see that even the few people who can make the electoral connection between frustration at the school and federal officials are stymied. Most people don’t make that connection. They just get frustrated with the local school and their kid’s teacher. The teacher is frustrated too, and it hampers their effectiveness at a job they once loved. Both employee and customer are looking for other options.

So what should a merit pay plan look like? I will tell you in one paragraph, whereas the corpro-government’s plans are multiple phone-books in length. Each citizen would have a $50 tax credit that they could designate to go into a fund that each school would have to give out merit pay for teachers. The taxpayer could have the money earmarked for a specific teacher, split among teachers, or given to the administration to give to the staff as they saw fit. The administrator would be prohibited from telling the teachers who gave to their bonus fund. Teachers who coach a sports team could only get a bonus as big as the average of the top five non-coaching teachers, with the rest of the money spilt up at the principle’s discretion. This plan would balance everyone’s interests. It also takes the focus off pleasing the state and toward pleasing the taxpayers. There is really only one reason this plan won’t be enacted: the people who call all the shots now would have to endure someone else, the people, getting to call some of the shots.

10:55 AM, February 17, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Each citizen would have a $50 tax credit that...

Could this "merit pay tax credit" go to private school teachers or would you limit it to public school teachers?

How would "Each citizen" know how good one teacher is compared to any other? Perhaps I would like to give my merit pay credit to the teacher that teaches the benefits of Capitalism and the faults of Socialism (contrary to current trends). How would I know that?

Could you expect the average "each citizen" to be informed in the already closed secret world of education policy?

Suppose a teacher who is very conservative knows that the people in his district are also very conservative. Furthermore, supposed that teacher let his teaching philosophy be known. I am willing to bet that teacher would only get ONE big merit pay check. The next check he would receive would be from the local church providing charity because the AEA, NEA, ACLU and other liberal groups would have destroyed every element of his life.

Not saying you don't have a good idea. Just saying that I have a hard time seeing how it could be applied. Thoughts?

11:48 AM, February 17, 2007  
Blogger Mark Moore (Moderator) said...

How would "Each citizen" know how good one teacher is compared to any other?



Could you expect the average "each citizen" to be informed in the already closed secret world of education policy?


Not every citizen would use their tax credit, just as most don't use their political contribution tax credit now. But there are plenty of people in every school district who already know who the good teachers are. Parents talk to one another. This would get them talking a bit more, and that can be a good thing.

Most teachers grades 5 and up teach 120 students. If 25 children's parents decide that teacher has served well then it is 25 X 2 X 50= $2500. That is comparable to the amount in these merit pay plans. And that does not include grandparents and just people from the community who want to throw something in the pot, or that some people may give to the good teacher even after their child has moved on.

Suppose a teacher who is very conservative knows that the people in his district are also very conservative. Furthermore, supposed that teacher let his teaching philosophy be known. I am willing to bet that teacher would only get ONE big merit pay check. The next check he would receive would be from the local church providing charity because the AEA, NEA, ACLU and other liberal groups would have destroyed every element of his life.

You exagerate, but this is a separate issue anyway. The AEA, NEA and ACLU are going to finally get the whipping they deserve if they start running off the favorite teachers of all these children.

I just don't get your beef. I am not claiming it is perfection, just a whole lot better than we have now and WAY a whole lot better than the statist junk that is being proposed. You are worried about losing a battle that we don't even have the incentive to fight without this proposal. Right now those organizations are intimidating good teachers into silence and they have no way to measure community support.

You don't see how it could be applied? I hope you are against all the merit pay plans ever put forward because they are multi-thousand page monstrosities while this plan is one paragraph long. If THAT is too daunting a task then I hope you are against them all.

Tell me, do you support the idea of public schools if the locals have real authority to run it?

1:25 PM, February 17, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not a beef. Don't get so defensive. Just trying to work out some of the ideas put forward. You gave decent answers.

You don't see how it could be applied? I hope you are against all the merit pay plans ever put forward because they are multi-thousand page monstrosities while this plan is one paragraph long.

I really haven't seen how it could be applied yet. I like how YOU are filling in the blanks. But! there is the rub. Who would be filling in the blanks? Even if you could, would you also somehow be able to write the law to close all the loop holes and specifically define terms to prevent the 'dynamic interpretation' that the liberals would use to undermine the original intent of the "Merit Pay Tax Credit Act." How many page monstrosity would that be? Probably a better monstrosity, but still a monstrosity.

Once the Merit Pay Tax Credit Act was passed. Would the statute be written into regulation by the Department of Education in such a way as match the intent of the Act? Now we are back to a multi-thousand page monstrosity.

Tell me, do you support the idea of public schools if the locals have real authority to run it?

Hmmmm... superficially I would say 'yes' but that depends on if a "public" school still means a "local GOVERNMENT school."

Perhaps the best law is one that begins... "The State of Arkansas SHALL MAKE NO LAW that..."

Tell me, do you support forced wealth redistribution for the purposes of universally available K-12 education?

3:53 PM, February 17, 2007  
Blogger Mark Moore (Moderator) said...

All right, all right, I did not mean to come off so touchy. I can sense that you are not a big fan of public education anyway.

Some wealth "redistribution" is inherent in any government project, but I readers of this blog know that I want to keep the "redistribution" to a minimum. I don't feel like the state is obligated to provide EQUAL facilites to all districts, just provide them with funds for ADEQUATE ones.

But that is wealth redistribution among users of the system. What you seem to be asking is should those who opt out of the system still have to pay taxes to support it? Home or private school is not for everyone. If they educate properly, community schools can benefit everyone, even those who do not use them. Because of that, it is moral to tax for a community school that helps make better and more capable citizens. Are the government schools doing that now? I don't think so, but that is a separate question. Should familes who opt-out get some kind of tax break? I am leaning that way, but that is also a separate question.

would you also somehow be able to write the law to close all the loop holes and specifically define terms to prevent the 'dynamic interpretation' that the liberals would use to undermine the original intent of the "Merit Pay Tax Credit Act." How many page monstrosity would that be? Probably a better monstrosity, but still a monstrosity.


I think I can do it in a two-page bill. If some legislator agrees to push it, I will write it. Any law can be twisted if the interpreters are determined enough to pervert it, but you could say the same about any law on the books. Once again, how others may twist it is a separate question. I am confident that I could write a tight bill that would be hard to twist.

So set aside the separate questions of what others MIGHT do to the law, which could be used as an excuse for any bill ever written. Do you have a "beef" with the concept of letting members of the community decide which teachers get bonuses rather than some central government authority determining that by its own complex guidlines? If so, what is the nature of your objection?

If it is just that you homeschool, I want to make the case to you that homeschoolers and private school students should be 100% behind this bill. The reason is that as soon as the bad guys make goverment schools into what they want them to be (and they are well along on that process), they will be fully focused on all that is left to them- compelling the remaining segments of the population into the system. What I am suggesting will set them back on their heels. It is better for you who have opted out of the system to keep the bad guys engaged in fighting to assert full control over the system than to turn your backs and let them have it. For one thing, you have to live in the same country as the products of those schools, and for another, once they finish off the last flicker of independence from government schools they will turn their full attentions to you.

In military terms, we should want Israel to win because the crazies they are fighting would be fighting us if they were not occupied with Israel.

6:15 PM, February 17, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you have a "beef" with the concept of letting members of the community decide which teachers get bonuses rather than some central government authority determining that by its own complex guidlines? If so, what is the nature of your objection?

No objection, this exactly is what I trying to get to. (Recall, my hint at my opinion how the best bill would should start?) What prevents local school boards from providing teachers with merit pay RIGHT NOW?

It seems to me, that if local school boards CAN'T provide local merit pay programs, then laws need to be repealed. Not a new one pushed down from the state level, even one as good as yours.

On the other hand, if local school boards WON'T implement a merit pay program, why should the state force one on them?

6:53 PM, February 17, 2007  
Blogger Mark Moore (Moderator) said...

Are you sure you are not arguing just for arguments sake? I don't have time for that. None of these "objections" address the point.

We need the legislation. School boards pay according to a schedule based on state law and dept. of ed. regulations. "Repealing current laws" won't cut it because how can school boards offer tax credits? It needs to be "use it or lose it" tax credit in form so that usage will be significant enough to make a difference.

This is not about "forcing" a merit pay program on the local schools. It is about saving them from the "merit pay plan" that the feds are trying to force on them. If you want to make the program optional and let each school board decide if they will accept the tax credit money, that is fine by me. They will leap at the chance or lose their best teachers to those who will. Empowering people works wonders.

7:47 PM, February 17, 2007  

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