Sunday, February 20, 2011

On Merit Pay in Public Schools

When people think of merit pay, I think many people think of typical private sector compensation. An employee is compensated for sales revenue produced, profit maximization, cost minimization, widgets produced, etc. It makes sense to some to base the employee’s compensation on their actual production. I think it is more difficult to accurately measure the quality of teaching in quantitative terms.

There are many variable that affect educational outcomes—the ability level of the incoming students, their learning from the previous year, their work motivation, their ability to focus, their health, the parenting they receive at home, their home environment, the educational resources available, the behavior of the students at large, their incentives, their expectations on the feasibility of affording college, the models of success in their lives, administrative demands placed on the teacher, etc. in addition to the quality of the teaching.

Certainly there are characteristics of effective teaching and some teachers are more effective than others. But measuring these differences is difficult, costly and time-consuming. Each year, each teacher receives different groups of students that are not the same of any teacher from the year before. Also, students develop, progress and, yes, sometimes regress each year. So, it seems like merit would have to be determined by some sort of Multi-Factor Evaluation.

To do this, it seems that you would have to give the students a pre-test at the beginning of year in all of the content knowledge the teacher is expected to teach. In the school where I work teachers are expected to teach reading “across the curriculum” meaning that all teachers are supposed to teach reading. Also, all teachers are supposed to teach writing “across the curriculum.” So, students would have to be tested in those areas as well. But if it taught across the curriculum, how would we know to which teacher to attribute the child’s performance?

We are also expected to teach “21st Century Skills.” These include being a Communicator with 5 Indicators, being a Self-Directed Individual with 5 Indicators, being a Collaborator with 7 indicators, being a Creative Thinker and Innovator with 4 Indicators, being a Complex Thinker with 6 Indicators and being a Global Citizen with 6 indicators. Assessments and rubrics for these skills are being developed, but they are costly and time-consuming because they are not easily assessed. Also, it would be difficult to discern which teacher contributed to the students’ development in these areas.

Then you would probably want an administrator to observe each teaching at least once throughout the year. You would probably want anonymous peer reviews conducted by the teachers as well. To fairly do this, teachers would have directly observe their peers teaching so their evaluation wouldn’t be based on speculation or hearsay. I work in a building with over 150 teachers so I would have to do this every day to see every teacher. It could be done within departments at the high school to reduce costs I suppose. Then the students should probably fill out standardized teacher evaluations as well. Then at the end of the year, the students would have to take all of the assessments from the beginning of the year again. This is more time and resources away from instruction.

All of this information would have to be collected and assessed in a timely way so the district could determine contracts based on merit pay and which, if any, teachers to not offer a contract. This would have to be done in time for the district to hire a new teacher to fill the position and for the teacher to receive additional training and acquire a new job somewhere. Of the percentage of money spent on education, it seems like this system would increase administration and implementation costs. Maybe it would increase teacher effectiveness. And maybe it would allow us to identify and dismiss ineffective teachers.

But, let’s assume that each school district hires the most qualified individual from the applicants willing to take the position based on the current market conditions. Let’s further assume that given current market conditions every one who is willing to be a teacher is participating in the labor market for teachers. Will there be sufficient incentives in place to attract new teachers to replace the “ineffective” teachers that are identified? Would it lead to a system where some school districts continue to ndentify “ineffective” teachers and replace them with another “ineffective” teacher? In that case, maybe the teacher would not be the problem but what is being asked of the teacher. We may have spent a lot of time, money and resources to not really change things very much. But maybe this system would make the public feel better about what the schools are doing. Maybe it would provide incentives for teachers to be better. But, I'm not so sure of that.

Based on my experience at my current school, teachers are very accountable to students, teachers and administrators. If any one has a concern about something that I have said or done, I usually hear about it pretty quickly and have to address it with the student, parent or administrator. Maybe it would be cheaper for parents to take a more active role in the education of their children. (Which, the vast majority of parents that I work with already do.) Maybe instead of complaining about public schools and voting against funding for public schools, people should become involved in the decision-making process at the local level. From my experiences, our school is very responsive to communication from the community because we know that we depend on the public to vote for school funding levies. Maybe accountability to students, parents and the community is ultimately the best incentive for teachers to do their job well. This system is much cheaper, but it does take time and effort.