Sunday, May 22, 2011

Merit Pay For Teachers

I would like to open this up for discussion: what do you think of the idea of merit pay for teachers?  Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna persuaded our legislature to pass three bills recently that absolutely infuriated the Idaho teachers' union.  (Not that this much matters: this must be one of the only places in the country where a teachers' union is as undangerous as the phrase "teachers' union" sounds).

I was not happy with one of the proposals, which involved issuing laptops (or something--the terminology kept changing) to 9th graders and requiring them to take online courses.  I think there is merit to online courses, but only for relatively mature students--and that does not describe most or, I fear, even many 9th graders. I also fear that most 9th graders will be less careful with their state-issued laptops than they are with the intimate parts of their body, resulting in raging computer infections, costly repairs, and more than a few exchanges of laptops for meth. 

Another proposal involving doing away with tenure.  I understand the concerns about this, but there are not too many other jobs that have tenure.  Even state employees do not have tenure.  The system is definitely biased against firing someone once they have completed their probationary period, but tenure is a bit more than that.  As you might expect, the Idaho teachers' union is riproaring upset about this.

The third part was a merit pay plan.  Here is Luna's defense of his plan.  I generally like the idea of merit pay plans, tied to standardized test performance.  One legitimate objection to tying merit pay to standardized tests is that if you are a teacher in certain school districts, you are almost certainly going to end up with a bunch of students who, because of the cultural values of the families, are going to do very badly on standardized tests--and short of taking the kids away from their parents, there is essentially nothing you can do to fix this problem.  (And many of these subcultures here in Idaho that consider education worthless are white, not black or Hispanic.)  On the other hand, teachers working in districts filled with high-achieving parents are going to have a much easier time meeting performance targets.

Even within a district, there are teachers who are teaching gifted classes--and far more that are not.  Using standardized test scores to award merit pay means that tThe teachers with the gifted kids are going to have an unfair advantage over the teachers with average students and especially over those teachers with the remedial students.

The solution is to compare teachers with comparable classes within a district, and make merit pay dependent not on how well the students do, but how much those scores improved relative to the end of the previous year or semester.  A teacher whose students are two grade levels above where they were at the end of last year deserves a hefty bonus; one whose students are not even a grade level above last year does not. 

Classes vary substantially from year to year.  Last year's 9th graders may be a lot smarter or ambitious than this year's 9th graders.  In any given year, a teacher may be stuck with students who do not want to learn, and will be unable to get merit pay because of it.  But if year after year, Mr. Jones has students who do not advance much over the previous year, while Mrs. Johnson's students more often than not do gain a grade level or more in skills and knowledge, it is a good guess that Mrs. Johnson is a better teacher than Mr. Jones--and deserves to be rewarded for it.

There are certainly problems with the matter of standardized tests, and teaching to the test.  However: if what you are testing is a fair measure of what is important, teaching to the test is actually what a teacher should be doing.  If it matters that students can correctly identify that in the sentence, "The cat ran after the mouse," which parts are subject, verb, object, article, noun, preposition (and I would argue that it does matter), and the teacher manages to teach her students the ability to figure this out, then she is teaching the right skills.  If her students have mastered the ability to answer these sort of questions well above grade level, throw her a $3000 bonus at the end of the year: she deserves it.



  1. It has been my own conclusion that the only way to fix the education system is to get the State out of it altogether. Let the students decide for themselves, with the guidance of their parents, what they will learn, and how they will learn it.

    Of course, "Homeschooling for Everyone!" isn't exactly a rallying cry for the Teachers' Union to get behind...

    Just to head off one objection at the pass: "What would happen to the children of the poor?" I would expect that students would do far better being taught at home, than they would be to continue in the urban slum schools.

  2. Hmmmm.....I wonder if merit bonuses could be tied to degree of improvement rather than just a single score, and that teachers be grouped - either by location or discipline - to reduce the impact of outliers.
    This would, of course, require testing at the start of the school year and again at the end, which drives up cost. But, tracking year start to year end performance, plus year-to-year performance, of algebra teachers in a school district, or a group of 6 schools in that district, and publicizing the results might be incentive to both parents and teachers.

    Since schools are geographically based, if a particular school serves a community that has cultural resistance to good academic performance in the 9th grade, the same will probably be true for eleventh grade, so basing performance measures on individual schools punishes some, rewards others.

    I would worry less about "teaching to the test" than I would about deliberate corruption of the output data by administrators driving aberrations in the classroom to drive scores up.

  3. I am very skeptical of merit pay for teachers because, when predicting student achievement, the quality of the student is far more important than the quality of the teacher (within the range commonly found in the United States). This makes evaluating teachers difficult because it is difficult to adequately adjust for differences in their students when comparing teachers. There is also a large random factor when looking at one year results.

    Much of the push for merit pay (and other school "reforms") seems based on the premise that "bad" and "good" schools are not just schools with a lot of "bad" and "good" students. This premise is generally false, if you take a "bad" school and a "good" school and exchange the student populations the "bad" school will magically become "good" and vice versa.

    Merit pay systems can be actively harmful when cheating or otherwise gaming the system is easier than actually improving student achievement (which is generally the case).