Being a 16 year grizzled veteran teacher, I've often read about the pros and cons of merit pay for teachers -- that is, bonuses and/or salary increases for superior teacher performance. On the surface, it sounds like a pretty easy concept. When you delve into the details, however, it gets more complicated. Don't get me wrong -- I am in no way opposed to a merit pay scheme that makes sense and is logically functional. But that's the rub. Many merit pay ideas (that I've seen) fail those criteria and/or fail to address other concerns.
Just to give you an example of what I mean by "making sense" and "logically functional," the state of Delaware wanted (wants?) to evaluate state teachers partially (20%) on the test scores of the students. On the surface, this sounds somewhat reasonable. However, since the state test (DSTP) measures ONLY mathematics and English, how exactly can an art teacher's evaluation be tied to students' test scores? Or a science teacher's? Many of you know that I am a Spanish teacher. How come 20% of my evaluation is based on my students' math and English test scores? Talk about "incentive" -- this turns the incentive on its head! Why waste my time teaching Spanish -- I should be tutoring my students in math and English!
That column, "How One School Found a Way to Spell Success," described how teachers at the Meadowcliff School, formerly full of student underachievers, were promised bonuses linked to improvements in the standardized test performance of each student. (The column is available on OpinionJournal here.) The size of the bonus increased relative to the student's year-over-year test gains. A 4% improvement earned a $100 bonus, rising to $400 if the student gained 15% (some did). Everyone in the school was in the bonus plan, including the cafeteria ladies, who started eating with the kids rather than in their own lounge. It worked. Scores improved. Twelve teachers got bonuses from $1,800 to $8,600. The checks were handed out in a public ceremony. Oprah would love Meadowcliff.
Again, sounds great on the surface. No doubt. But I have questions. What subjects did the standardized tests measure? How exactly did art teachers -- or Spanish teachers -- affect these [standardized test] subjects? And how in the world do cafeteria workers affect them?? The above plan states teachers' pay was tied to student performance; so, cafeteria workers can get bonuses too ... for eating lunch with students? Wow. Apparently there were individual bonuses and group (school) bonuses. And there's a nit I have with this comment (from the linked article in the above blockquote): "This straight-line pay-for-performance formula awarded teachers objectively in a way that squares with popular notions of fairness and skirts fears of subjective judgment. In most merit-based lines of work, say baseball, it's called getting paid for 'putting numbers on the board.'" Doing away with as much subjectivity in teacher evaluations (for bonuses) is a good thing; however, the analogy to baseball is far from perfect. Baseball players have only to rely on themselves for their performance. They control all the "factors of production," so to speak. On the other hand, teachers [also] have to rely their students, obviously. That is a pretty significant factor of production with aspects outside of teacher control, is it not?
When you tie teacher pay (or bonuses) to student test performance, you need a basis from which to start -- a "benchmark," if you will. A student takes a test at the beginning of the [school] year and then continously throughout the year. You can thus verify improvement. But the way many schools are currently configured means that students have many different teachers over the years (and subjects), especially in the upper grades. This is probably a "minor" structural issue, however; subject/grade configurations could be modified to permit a more concrete measurement.
But what about my subject (again, Spanish)? Students come to my class with no knowledge (or virtually no knowledge) of the subject matter. How would a "benchmark" test work in this regard? (I am asking this not out of skepticism, but out of real ignorance.) Or, would the standardized final exam at the end of the year be a sufficient measure of my teaching abilities? If so, what percentage of my students would need to pass it in order for me to get my bonus? Does that percentage get raised each year? Or, does a certain "bell curve" grade distribution need to be realized for my bonus?
I Googled "merit pay teachers" the other day and the first page of articles dealing with the subject were overwhelmingly negative. The very first article is by education researcher Richard Rothstein and is titled "Merit Pay Won't Work." I must admit I am very skeptical of Rothstein, especially after reading [one of] his devoid-of-reality "solution" to inner-city education problems. Rothstein argues that "... despite the oft-repeated notion that 'merit pay' contributes to corporate success, it is hard to find private sector examples for such proposals." He goes on to point out various studies to support his point, but in my opinion they are weak. And as a point of personal anecdotal evidence to the contrary, my job before teaching was in credit card collections. Each employee who reached his/her monthly percentage goal received a bonus.
Rothstein then quotes Brooklyn-Queens Archdiocese Superintendent Guy Puglisi who says
"We have many schools where test scores are low. But if the teachers are working hard, the scores are not that much of an indication of anything. The teachers might be working doubly hard, but the scores are low because of the social conditions they face.
"I don't think merit pay is that great an idea ... what motivates teachers is the opportunity to do challenging work, and then being told how much they are appreciated."
If the teachers are working hard. There's certainly no doubt that what motivates many teachers is effecting positive change in the learning of youth. Personally, I did not go into teaching for the money! I don't know of anyone who did. But the fact remains that there are many teachers who are lemons -- and the question remains: Is it fair that these lemons get paid the same (or more, based on years of experience and/or education level) as an exceptional teacher?
One point where I believe Rothstein pretty much hits the mark is this: The evaluations needed to support a merit pay system in education are inconceivable with schools' currently weak administrative structures. Administrators' main focus these days is dealing with student discipline, and many are now hired solely for this purpose. Thus, I'd argue these folks do not have the aptitude to evaluate teacher performance, especially in key subject areas. But, again, utilizing standardized test scores on which to base (whole, or in part) teacher evaluations could certainly alleviate some of the "load" from administrative "judgment."
Myron Lieberman, like Rothstein, dismisses the notion that merit pay is much more widespread in industry (as opposed to education):
Conservatives often exaggerate the extent to which merit pay is the practice in our labor force. In dozens of industries, merit pay seldom applies to employees below the supervisory level. In fact, merit pay does not affect airline pilots and several other occupations in the public and private sectors. Superior performance often leads to promotions to positions in which merit pay is operative, but this is true in education as well.
I don't know how accurate that last sentence is; in my experience excellent teachers wouldn't touch administration with a 50-foot pole. Lieberman goes on to ask one of my main queries from above (my emphasis):
Even if teachers, teacher unions, and school management agreed that merit pay was a good idea in principle, the problems of implementing the idea would be difficult to resolve. To cite just one problem, how can we compare merit among teachers of different subjects and grade levels? With the best will in the world, different interests will lead to differences of opinion on this issue.
And that's just it. As I stated from the beginning, I have little hassle with merit pay. I just want a system that makes sense -- and wasn't put together to satisfy someone's notion of political expediency, like the proposed Delaware teacher evaluation plan. In addition, Lieberman notes how school administrators would be wary of utilizing a merit pay plan due to [its possible] subjectivity -- "This is not something administrators look forward to, especially since it's always possible to criticize the criteria or the applications of the criteria for merit pay," he writes. It's a good point, for as Greg over at Rhymes With Right notes, just as teachers know which fellow teachers are doing their jobs, they also know what adminstrators are doing their jobs, too. You could be a phenomenal teacher who's "led" by an inferior principal, have disagreements over proper education policy (the teacher clearly being right in this case) and as a result your evaluation is poor -- "payback," if you will. Does this sound familiar to any teachers out there?
The debate will continue to rage. I recommend all teachers, especially, check out the many differences of opinion regarding merit pay at the Google link above. To restate, I personally have no objection to merit pay, as long as a fair system is established to implement it. The Meadowcliff School's example may to be such a system; I'd like to see more specifics to make a concrete evaluation. Delaware's system (not merit pay, mind you, but 20% of a teacher's evaluation that can affect pay) as current constructed is not such a system.