Saturday, November 13, 2010


Merit pay for public school teachers is an idea which refuses to die. Born during the “Reagan Revolution,” along with privatization and supply-side economics, the idea relies on a simple principle: reward better (teaching) performance more (and worse [teaching] performance less?). I understand that Republicans and some reformers glommed onto merit pay in their desperation about the decline in student education in public schools evident even 25 years ago and continuing since.

The principle works in commercial and manufacturing sectors, but not in public service sectors, especially public education. The reason: what works in competitive contexts and cultures does not work in non-competitive ones. No one becomes a public school teacher expecting to get rich, and none is disappointed!

No matter how school districts have designed and implemented them, all merit-pay programs, launched with fanfare, have collapsed as failures from which other school districts have learned nothing. Despite this unblemished record, the survival of this idea testifies to the strength of its ideological appeal in defiance of facts and factuality.

Some 10 years ago, while driving through Cincinnati, Ohio, I stopped for lunch, picked up the local paper, and read about a soon-to-be implemented merit-pay program. It resembled nothing so much as the multi-year failure attempted over a dozen years before in Fairfax County, Virginia. When I got home, I placed two calls. First, I called the president of the Cincinnati School Board, who was not a little hostile both to me as a perfect stranger and to my bad report about the highly touted merit-pay initiative. He admitted that the School Board had not considered the experience of other school systems which had attempted merit-pay programs, but assured me that Cincinnati’s would work.

Second, given that reception, I called the local teachers union and spoke with the its vice president, who immediately understood my concerns. I explained why the program would collapse, predicted that it would probably collapse within a few, maybe only two, years, and forecast that his membership would be angry not only at the school board, but also at its leadership. I could hear the alarm in his voice when he agreed. When I suggested that the leadership get to work at once on a plan for a smooth transition process when the program failed, he thanked me. Two years later, the program ended.

All merit-pay programs thus far have failed because they are inevitably unfair and eventually unaffordable. All offer large salary increases to teachers who significantly improve student academic performance. Everything hinges on the selection process, which hinges on the evaluation process, which hinges on the criteria of student academic performance, which are biased or unreliable. For, inevitably, every year, teachers face different students, different mixes of students from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, with different family educational backgrounds and attitudes toward education, and and from different schools, teachers, and curriculums. True, pre- and post-testing scores can measure student change in one year. But the same teacher working at the same level of competence and effort can have students making more or less improvement in one year than in another—hardly a reliable measure of or reflection on the teacher, surely an adverse influence on results-based evaluation and selection, and certainly not fair.

Another reason for failure reflects the effort to be fair by basing awards on multi-year evaluation and selection. The unintended consequence is the creation of a two-class teaching force and, with it, the personal and professional ugliness of “class warfare.” A rigidly structured program giving some teachers large, long-term rewards for improved teaching cannot terminate them without bruising egos, causing embarrassment, and lowering morale. Worse, because of budget limits, those first awarded merit pay keep others from getting it, even if they improve their teaching—a self-limiting, if not defeating, program outcome.

Merit-pay programs have continued to fail, the academic performance of the public schools continues to decline, and the causes of decline abide, some beyond, some within, the control of school districts. In the end, all school personnel—teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards—must do what they can do: play the cards in their hands, not carp about the cards still in the deck.

Most people assume that more money for education means better education. Many believe that raising teachers’ salaries by more than a cost-of-living adjustment will increase student academic performance—nonsense, of course. Teachers offer three main reasons for higher salaries: they are professionals but are paid less than others; they do, or try to do, their job, but cannot overcome factors beyond their control (socio-economic conditions, unsupportive parents, or recalcitrant students); and current schedules of compensation cannot attract better teachers.

True, teachers are not paid so much as other professionals, but they are not poorly compensated. They do not work in, and take the risks of working in, the private sector; instead, they have job security except in very bad economic times, itself a form of compensation. The academic demands for teaching are lower than those for other professions, though the differences are smaller at higher grade levels. They receive additional compensation in health coverage, retirement payments, and a shorter work year.

Most important, if teachers are correct to claim that poor academic performance or the decline in student education results from the factors beyond their control, then higher salaries can do nothing to reverse these results. It is absurd to ask taxpayers to pay teachers more if they cannot improve student academic performance or if they tout only their benign motives, worthy intentions, and determined efforts.

Last, if higher salaries are required to attract better teachers, those higher salaries should be paid to them only, not current teachers also, unless they have or acquire the qualifications of the better teachers. Otherwise, attracting a few better teachers becomes unaffordable because of the huge surge in cost of across-the-board higher salaries for the large majority of no-better-than-they-already-are teachers.

I suggest a simple program to give annual awards to a few teachers for distinguished performance by relying on teachers’ professional holistic judgment. Every school receives a salary supplement amounting to a small percentage of the school’s aggregate teacher salaries (say, 1%) and distributes it to a small percentage to its teachers (say, 10%) for notable professional performance. By secret ballot, each teacher nominates 20% semi-finalists, the school principal combines and ranks the nominations and uses the combined list to guide his or her selection of finalists, and the superintendent reviews each school’s lists to ensure reasonableness and fairness, and approve the distribution of awards.

Such a program could be a first step toward enhanced professionalism, and fair and affordable means to reward better teachers by treating all of them respectfully.

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