Sunday, December 09, 2007

Rules For The Voyage: Merit Pay

Before raising anchor and steering beyond the guns of the harbor fort, this is what I set out with in the hold.

  1. Merit pay, or any system thereof, is not an end onto itself. It must be a means to the type of ends that will improve our schools and systems. We do this not because teachers get so little after giving so much (awww...) but because the principle behind this particular reform takes us to all kinds of places public education needs to go in order to survive. As such, merit pay should only be available in those areas where improvement and reform is critical. Existing conditions already reward and incentivize teaching in the suburbs; further systems of incentives are unnecessary.
  2. Primarily, the monetary recognition of commitment, ingenuity, hard work, and ultimate effectiveness would improve the retention of the kind of teachers we care about retaining. The aim here is to add additional layers of motivational depth to the profession of teaching, as well as establishing a culture or paradigm or ideology in education where being good matters in ways beyond the kids, the kids, the kids.
  3. Acknowledging that we're not doing so hot with a system predicated on the quality and sustainability of somebody else's internal drive to excel does not make you Gordon Gecko, Milt Friedman, or the myriad of shitty people you swore you'd never become during your undergrad days when you were raging against various machines.
  4. Additional improvements potentially fueled by merit pay include the implementation of key methods of school structuring, the establishment of tiered teaching force, and a way to bring talented teachers to low-income areas.
  5. Any system of performance-based compensation would function in addition to existing salary structures that reward longevity (badly).
  6. The implementation of a merit pay system requires quantitative measures. These must be based on a sliding scale of student growth, measured by the types of standardized tests so many consider so gross. The sliding scale would require greater qualifying growth at the lower ends, since there is both so much potential and and so much need for large-scale improvement. At the higher ends, relatively less student improvement would be required, so as not to (further) politicize teacher assignment or disincentivize working with any one student group.
  7. If you teach art, you probably aren't eligible. Bummer.
  8. The implementation of a merit pay system requires qualitative measures. These must be based on the type of teacher actions that tend not to show up in the box scores. Here, principals could reward educators that have shown they type of exemplary leadership and creativity our current system fails to reward in any way whatsoever.
  9. If you teach art, you can get some here, especially if you teach art in all those life-changing ways I keep hearing about.
  10. The dollar amounts need to be substantial. This isn't a tip. Compensation should at least reimburse the post-tax, not-fully-deductible classroom expenditures you make yearly. It should fund a massive vacation, a good used car, get you over the hump on the down payment you want to make on that house at the end of the cul-de-sac.
  11. The system may be abused. Bummer.
  12. Seriously. Get over it. In education circles, especially those composed of teachers, we routinely murder the Good in the name of the Perfect. Whether in terms of classroom practices, school structure and function, or large scale systematic improvements and alterations, if an idea or proposal fails to repel any hypothetical hurled its way, said proposal is immediately dismissed and chests are thumped accordingly. We are the salt on the slugs of innovation. I don't doubt that some administrators will play favorites. I don't doubt that somebody's kids will learn little, score high, and that would suck. The petty annoyance of such things is simply not powerful enough to outweigh the myriad potential benefits. Our continued desire to ensure our systems function at the highest possible level is admirable, but the corresponding willingness to cannibalize ideas that fail to pass absurdly rigorous pre-screenings is just killing us.


Anonymous Dina said...

Check it out if you haven't already...

On the News subpage there is also a November 07 brief on a study of the TAP program (mentioned in comments on your last post).

5:59 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Quote: "If you teach art, you probably aren't eligible. Bummer."

I think you've written and published fiction, right? I've been repeatedly confused and surprised by your dismissal of the arts as a valid (never mind vital) component of education. Read much Richard Florida or Ken Robinson? Familiar with "Just Think!"?

I'm curious about why you take this stance. Is it based on more than "the basics are more important"? I would agree that an "art class" that is little more than "sit there and color" is worthless, but that's a reason to be against poor art education, not art education generally.

My curiosity doesn't mean you have to explain, of course, but if it's based on some well-thought-out reasons, I really would appreciate your explanation.

Other than that, I would agree with your ideas here and would probably take some of them further. Excellent teachers should be paid excellently, and poor teachers who won't and/or can't improve should be fired. (Yes, the system should support further training for teachers, the system should better support the teacher's jobs, etc.) But until teachers can be fired, by their "boss," for poor performance AND paid well for good performance, teacher quality will continue, for the most part, to stagnate or migrate.

Thanks for the post.

6:41 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


Part of it is because the arts in school are so vastly over-rated in the blogosphere and every ed class I've ever taken, that I drop sarcastic jibes in things I write to compensate for every moist-eyed share-out I have ever heard or read. Yeah, I've written and published some fiction, I've written and performed and recorded some music, and the most important "arts" thing I got in school was sitting next to this kid named Kevin who gave me a copy of his Minor Threat tape.

I'm not saying it's not valid, but the argument that rich kids write poetry while poor kids write ABOUT poetry doesn't sway me, because that isn't the truth. The truth is rich kids write poetry and poor kids don't know how to write anything much at all. If and when we get to the part about where all those poor kids are ONLY writing about poetry, but doing so effectively, I'll get on board with doing more for the arts. I don't mean this in some binary system of you get it or don't, but just in the way of priorities.

No doubt your point about some of this being a call for better art education is well-taken.

7:18 PM  
Blogger Jason Bengs said...

There is great truth in what you say. I think what you are trying to say about art is nothing against art teachers, but instead it points out that many merit pay models look to rewarding improvement in test scores and art often is not tested by the different states. Yes art is in everything. I also see some of the frustration for the teachers that will not get much out of pay incentives because they are not "classroom" teachers but are "lab" teachers that may offer extra assistance. Many of them will be a big part of improvement for our students but they will see little monetary reward. Is this fair? No, but what is?
One of the reasons there is not more turnover in teaching is the "job security." I have to do something pretty stupid to get fired. I love the security in knowing that, but does it make me lax in my efforts to improve? I hope not, I hope I strive to improve and educate my students in innovative ways. Isn't that the theoretical intent of NCLB?

8:44 PM  
Blogger allen said...

1. One nice thing about merit pay is that it makes explicit - the importance of education - what hasn't been well served by being implicit. If it's so damned important you find ways to measure it and you reward the .400 hitters and 3-point shooters.
2. It also validates worthwhile techniques and ideas. If your teacher of the year bonus was because of your handy-dandy technique then you have a choice of keeping it to yourself and reaping modest but worthwhile rewards or you can go public and for a price, teach other professionals your handy-dandy technique and make the big bucks.
3. Yeah, actually it does make you one of those shitty people. It's just that in your undergrad days you were too ignorant and too self-involved to give any consideration to the notions that you didn't have all the answers and that the world didn't revolve around you. Guess what? You still don't, it still doesn't and some of those people you were so sure were shitty smell the way they do because they're willing to deal with smelly, nasty necessities. You dealing with smelly, nasty necessities now that you're an adult? Guess what you smell like to people who enjoy the luxury of having other people deal with those necessities for them?
4. Drop by the school board and let them know what they ought to be doing to improve education, flunky. You're at the bottom of the heap and the people who decide about "tiered teaching forces" and "school structuring" don't answer to you. It's the other way round. If you want them to listen to you you play by the same rules they play by. Politics a bit too low-brow for you? Get lost.
5. If idealogical purity held overwhelming sway then it'd be draw against commission (bonus) but life isn't that simple. Salary set low enough to be a disincentive plus bonus with the balance being tilted in favor of bonus.
6. No, but quantitative measures are preferable. If you want to drag a human being into the measurement function they'd better have a vested interest in the appropriate outcome. A principal who's supposed to be above such coarse considerations as monetary remuneration is as counterproductive as a similarly elevated teacher. If the principal doesn't have an external, i.e. monetary, reason to make the school a place where good (and well-off) teachers teach well then why bother with the idea at all? Either all the professionals benefit from the desired outcome or none do.
7. Bullshit. What are the objective measures by which the next Olympic ice dancing gold medal will be decided?
8. See 6.
10. Yup. By the same measure, the salary should be pretty lousy.
12. Uh, no. The good and the perfect are immaterial. Nobodies measuring either or at least nobody was until a couple of years ago with the exception of the point in time when the prospect of college started to come into view.

Why would anyone waste their time with either the good or the perfect? With no one measuring, the good and the perfect were whatever they were momentarily defined to be.

Without some meaningful, objective measures the temptation is to define the good as good for *you*. So we have such shitty monstrosities as the self-esteem movement which convinced kids that they were learning and conveniently, convinced their parents that the kids were learning and we now have illiterates who feel good about themselves and semi-literates who are working on their Nobel Prize acceptence speeches. Without objective, externally-derived standards you don't end up with no standards at all, you end up with standards convenient to whoever's in a postition to set them.

Here's point number thirteen, the one you failed to mention: how's this miracle going to occur? It's not as if objective standards are a shocking new development which requires new ways of thinking and a complex, widely-distributed supporting infrastructure. Outside K-12 education standards of performance are the rule not a frightening, alien concept. So what's the path to overcoming the impediments to objective performance measurement? What *is* the impediment to performance measurement?

8:13 AM  
Anonymous Jeri said...

Salt on the slugs of innovation. Oh my. Good on so many levels.

Sorry -- no practical or helpful things to add. Just really liked that one.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Linda said...

The bigger issue is the so-called "leadership" in those failing schools. Whatever system they create must find some way to incentivize the administration without penalizing them if they kick out the "hoods" and troublemakers. Get a clue, ed specialists. Inner-city teachers don't get hit by students because they're bad teachers. Only poorer teachers (generally) will put up with being physically and emotionally abused by students and administrators without finding another job. Only the ones who have no prospects will stay. And, that's generally the liberal arts and fine arts teachers.

When the math and science teachers won't stay, that should be a clue that the school leadership needs to change. Math/science/special ed teachers are the canary in the minefield - they leave first, because they can.

I've seen inner-city schools that work, and I've seen those that don't. What IS required is a big pair of cojones in the principals. They cannot fear losing their job for offending the families of unruly students. They need to be insulated against politically-tied people, whether at the school board, the parents, or the community. The real issue is: can an unannounced visitor leave a car in the parking lot, walk into the building, and not see the hall-walkers milling around? Are the restrooms clear of smoke? (any kind) Do the kids who have worked hard to fail, do so? Or, are they passed on to the next grade, whether or not they do the work? Are there consequences for violence - and, by consequences, I mean out-of-school suspension - the first time - and expulsion after that.

5:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Existing conditions already reward and incentivize teaching in the suburbs; further systems of incentives are unnecessary.

one needs to re-read the UCLA study

plug in a fine suburban system: San Mateo County / Sequoia Union / schools

you'll see graduation rates below the state average and minority graduation rates well below that graduation rate. and that for a basic aid district that spends much more than the state average

Local Results
All students
State of California
Menlo-Atherton High
Sequoia High School
Woodside High Sch.

5:27 PM  
Anonymous Justin said...

I agree with most of what you say... especially any idea that gets good teachers into "bad" schools... Merit-based pay has its up-side and its down-side as you have so graciously pointed out. However the need for it outweighs the any cons.
I should have prefaced this comment with the fact that I am pre-service. I have yet to earn a pay check or deal with the system directly. I have however given great thought to why I want to teach, and the money is not one of them. Although I cannot ignore the fact that every little bit helps.
As an side, I have a project of my own that I would like to share.
A site a few other grad students and I have put together to help teaching relevance and multiculturalism in the classroom. We would appreciate any ideas, criticism, and opinions regarding the site and especially topics or ideas that are important to ESL students and Spanish-speaking students. Thanks and keep up the good work.

6:38 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


All those ELL needles in all those haystacks, huh? I'm not going to fake a strong familiarity with achievement data such as these, but I'm not terribly surprised either. These data, though, don't change my opinion of how we incentivize the move to those suburbs. Folks in those school districts you mentioned get paid more than me, have better benefits than I do, work in newer buildings, generally experience less shit, and on the whole, probably have a better opinion of the work they do -- even if that opinion isn't all the way backed up.


We could each probably do another number-by-number critique and response, but the device will probably grow more than old by then, and I envision a whole bunch of these "Rules for the Voyage: _____" things, so I'll limit myself to #13.

13. We bring about change by continuing to advocate for these issues. We change these things by not allowing the debate to leave the main stage for any length of time. I understand the arguments re: motivation, and while it is difficult to argue on that level, I'll say it is more difficult to maintain a motivation against, than a motivation for. We are the way of the water. We wear down mountains.

You don't have to look far and wide to see the tide turn. Merit pay exists in many major school districts, notably Denver, Houston, and New York. While generally flawed, the willingness of folks to "innovate" will drive others likewise (The unfulfilled promise of the charter movement).

There is also a generational outlook. This is a tricky thing to discuss, because everyone is, in their own right and on any number of issues, an exception to any number of rules and assertions, but I'd say that generally, the folks who line up with me on this one are below the median age/ experience level relative to the teaching profession as a whole. That's good. It speaks less of the wet-behind-the-ears observations of a bunch of probabtionary employees, and more of a chronological inertia. There are some real dinosaurs out there, and there's a lot of people lining up to become a climate-altering meteor.

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just pointing out that just because it is the suburbs doesn't imply a need for incentives and imprivements. even well-run companies use merit pay (in fact that why they might be well-run)

the stats I should have introduced better ... for every 100 students, how many graduate and how many are ready for college. not an ELL question at all.

I do appreciate the fact that you've kept merit pay connected to outcomes unlike too many proposals which confuse it with the framework of hazardous duty pay ie pay differential for tougher circumstances. That may easily be justified and positive, but that model is still based on inputs rather than outputs.

4:28 AM  
Blogger allen said...

My major beef isn't with the idea of merit pay. It's with the notion that merit pay is a cure for a disease instead of what it is, a palliative for a symptom.

There's a reason that merit pay is such a shocking notion in the public education system and while political muscle may be able to overcome the resistance to the emplacement of merit pay without understanding, and dealing with, the underlying cause you're just setting the stage for merit pay to be poorly-executed and ultimately vitiated.

Merit pay exists in private enterprise to motivate employees. That's the end it's meant to achieve. But the purpose for the existance of merit pay in private enterprise isn't to motivate employees, it's too help ensure the success of the enterprise. There's the rub. Merit pay in the public education system won't help ensure the continued existance of the enterprise. To a school district, merit pay's just another set of policies that have to be dealt with. It's not a matter of, organizational, life and death. In business, it is.

Until public schools can cease to exist because they fail to perform merit pay will be a solution in search of a problem. You'll have all the problems that merit pay brings but none of the benefits.

5:40 AM  
Anonymous Belive in the Delta said...

I appreciate these arguments.

What I find that you lack to discuss - and I definitely understand why - is how to attract excellent teachers and excellent school leaders to low-income regions that ARE NOT inner-city.

Sure, just about everyone and their mom wants to live in a little studio in a cute brownstone somewhere in Brooklyn... but I don't see anyone leaving their cities to teach in some of the poorest, most under-resourced and "failing" parts of this country: rural U.S.A.

I live in a state in which the majority of public schools are led by administrators, faculty and staff who've been educated in our sub-par state university system. It seems as though we will never see excellent teachers until somehow, *miraculously*, our higher-ed becomes more rigorous. And since nobody moves to our state to go to school, our higher ed schools will continue to be filled with "failing" students because they've been taught by sub-par teachers who are led by sub-par principals.

Hence, sub-par students will cycle into our sub-par university system, get spit out, and return as sub-par teachers. And the cycle will continue.

Until there are real life incentives to attract people to rural areas in states that don't have the sights, sounds, and smells of places like NYC, merit pay will not change anything. Except fatten our pay checks.

4:57 PM  
Anonymous Nancy Flanagan said...

Your conceptual framework for merit pay, despite your assertions to the contrary, does have a Milton Friedman feel to it. Have you considered another reason for merit pay: it's a better use of available resources? We can use the money and time we already have available toward reaching our educational goals, rather than doling it out on the basis of how long folks have been hanging around or how many graduate hours they've accrued.

Or read this:

There must be a really bad art teacher somewhere in your distant past.

1:45 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


You're right, and I got nothing for you. I don't write about those issues both because 1) I don't know anything, and 2) I don't know what to do about any of it.

Hi Nancy,

I've read your report and wrote about it not long after it was published.

5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your sarcasm has has always made you seem like a pompous ass--way too bitter a pill to swallow.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Tom Hinkle said...

It doesn't seem that you've considered the possibility that merit pay won't work. Or won't work better than other ways of increasing pay.

The idea that we should just fire the bad teachers and reward the good ones assumes there's some huge pool of unhired great teachers out there. I've been going through resumes for the past couple of months and I can't say I've seen that pool materialize.

So, if merit pay means pay *above* what we're already doing it, it probably will help, because it will increase pay. But comparing that to what we have now is not a fair comparison. To really believe in merit pay, you have to believe it would work if we started with an across-the-board cut in teacher salaries, then used merit pay to dole out the savings unequally to the "best" teachers.

There are of course deep problems with merit pay that you probably haven't acknowledged. There are the de-motivating effects described by Daniel Pink in his pop-business work. There is also the fact that it will incentivize teachers to do whatever they can to get test scores up, which means we'd better make damned sure those tests are measuring what we care about and are not scammable, because otherwise we'll get lots of scams. Combine these two and there's a decent chance that merit pay will demotivate the kind of dedicated teachers we want to keep and motivate the kind of scheming cheaters we want far away from our kids.

Finally, to propose the merit pay solution seems to imply that our problem is that teachers just aren't trying hard enough, and that if we just dangled more money in front of them they would try harder. I think there's a decent chance lots of potential teachers go another route for more money, but that's not the same thing as saying the folks who chose teaching could do better if you dangle a prize in front of them (or threaten to take it away).

4:11 AM  

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