Saturday, January 8, 2011

The ignorance of merit pay

Sarcasm often leads to the lowest form of humour, and now after reading Randall Denley's article on teacher merit pay, I can see that it can also lead to the lowest form of reasoning.

Here's how Denley starts his article:
Have you ever heard anything crazier than this? A guy called Kevin Falcon, who is running for the B.C. Liberal leadership, has suggested that people who are really good at their jobs should get paid more than those who are just average.

Needless to say, this bold assertion has caused outrage, but only because the people Falcon is talking about are teachers. The head of the teachers' federation in B.C. is appalled and the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation is on the same page.

Falcon has attacked one of the most cherished myths of the education industry, the contention that all teachers are equal and should be paid accordingly. If teachers are all equally skilled at their jobs, then our schools would be the first workplace to demonstrate this surprising development.
To someone unfamiliar with the education sector, and likely more familiar with business, Denley probably hits a home run. I mean, why wouldn't someone who is better at their job get paid more? This logic seems so innocuous that to disagree with it would be prima facie evidence that you wish to reward mediocrity, protect lazy-ass teachers, or you are a latent Lenin-loving Communist who should rot-in-hell.

But why take my word for it when you can get it straight from Denley:
The union opposition to a scheme that would actually pay some teachers more is superficially puzzling, but the real fear is a merit system would replace the lax, experience-driven pay-increase system that we have now. Don't be fooled into thinking that the teachers' opposition to merit pay is driven by some kind of altruistic approach that values accomplishment over money.
I wish it were as simple as Denley makes it sound: pay good teachers more - pay bad teachers less. Problem solved. And if you disagree, you're a heretic.

Just one problem.

How do Denley and other market-based "reformers" plan on filtering the good teachers from the bad?

Despite Denley's cavalier tone, even he doesn't ever really say how this will be accomplished. Other than, near the end of his diatribe, he seems to place great faith in the all-mighty standardized test.

His assumptions are ripped straight from the market-based education reform play-book, which might read something like this:
Test scores are accepted on faith as a proxy for quality, which means we can evaluate teachers on the basis of how much value they've added -- "value" meaning nothing more than higher scores. That, in turn, paves the way for manipulation by rewards and punishments: Dangle more money in front of the good teachers (with some kind of pay-for-performance scheme) and shame or fire the bad ones. Kids, too, can be paid for jumping through hoops. 
So do standardized tests assess what matters most about teaching and learning? If not, then the entire premise behind merit pay is built on, at best, superficial foundation. Many experts on the subject of standardized testing will put it this way  "test results primarily tell us two things: the socioeconomic status of the students being tested and the amount of  time devoted to preparing students for a particular test."

But even if you do find standardized tests credible, intelligent educators and business-people alike should realize that it is unwise to place so much importance on a single indicator or measurement. Rick Ayer's writes:
But our education MBA's have taken the lazy route. They should be broadening assessments to understand what students know and are able to do -- looking at qualitative evaluations, performance and portfolio and project based assessments, and learning in multiple modes that include creative and arts fields. Instead, they have narrowed the assessment -- really to only one measure, the standardized test. And that way lies disaster. Because, as anyone in business can tell you, a single metric bends all the efforts to polishing up that one measure, to the detriment of other important factors and even to the derailing of the whole enterprise.
If you need more on this, I suggest you acquaint yourself with Campbell's Law:
Campbell's law stipulates that "the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it was intended to monitor. Campbell warned us of the inevitable problems associated with undue weight and emphasis on a single indicator for monitoring complex social phenomena. In effect, he warned us about the high-stakes testing program that is part and parcel of No Child Left Behind.
Error rates in measuring teacher and school performance based on student test score gains has led experts to caution against reliance on test scores in teacher evaluations.

Even in his article, Randall Denley admits there is no consensus around merit pay, nor is there research to support the implementation of merit pay based on a value added model, but it would appear he doesn't really care:
Newspaper editorialists have agreed with merit pay in theory, but not in practice because there is no proof that it will produce miraculous improvements in learning. Probably not, but it makes more sense than paying people more money every year for a decade simply because they continue to show up for work.

The point of merit-based pay would be to reward those who have done an exceptional job. Giving merit pay to weak teachers won't make them better, but then they wouldn't be getting it, would they?
The really big argument against merit pay for teachers is that the system is so great now we shouldn't consider changing it.
Denley's argument here is essentially this: "I don't know if merit pay works, but it has to be better than what we do now." He's prepared to throw caution to the wind because merit pay would appear to be a courageous challenge to the failed status quo.

Yet he couldn't be more wrong.

Look, I'm all for changing school. In fact, I find myself agreeing with those who suggest we need a learning revolution, but not like this. There is a big difference between focusing reform on real learning and teaching rather than on data and accountability. Philip Weinberg, a high school principal in New York put it this way:
Our attention needs to be on improving schools rather than on improving systems. Ask us to answer the tough questions: “How we can teach better and what we should teach?” Our concentration on statistical outcomes has caused us to be less effective educators than we might have been. It distracts us from the truly important questions of what, and how, young people learn.
Help us unlearn shorthand such as, “That school’s an A” or, “New York City’s test scores rose by X percent” because such language obscures the real question of whether or not kids are learning well. Instead, try to engender an honest dialogue about the best ways to get kids to think for themselves and the best ways to help young people develop the skills and the habits of mind necessary to become good citizens.
Please ensure that the public discourse is not about demonizing teachers or their union. A leader can effect change without manufacturing an enemy.
However, demonizing teachers is exactly the premise behind merit pay. The whole idea that teachers and students are simply not "motivated" enough to perform is as arrogant as it is ignorant. Kohn explains:
The premise of merit pay, and indeed of all rewards, is that people could be doing a better job but for some reason have decided to wait until it's bribed out of them. This is as insulting as it is inaccurate. Dangling a reward in front of teachers or principals—"Here's what you'll get if things somehow improve"— does nothing to address the complex, systemic factors that are actually responsible for educational deficiencies. Pay-for-performance is an outgrowth of behaviorism, which is focused on individual organisms, not systems—and, true to its name, looks only at behaviors, not at reasons and motives and the people who have them.
Even if they wouldn't mind larger paychecks, teachers are typically not all that money-driven. They keep telling us in surveys that the magical moment when a student suddenly understands is more important to them than another few bucks. And, as noted above, they're becoming disenchanted these days less because of salary issues than because they don't enjoy being controlled by accountability systems. Equally controlling pay-for-performance plans are based more on neoclassical economic dogma than on an understanding of how things look from a teacher's perspective.
Randall Denley concludes his article this way:
Fundamental questions need to be asked about how we run our schools, but the vehement reaction to Falcon's modest proposal from teachers, unions and the public shows that we aren't ready for change.
You're right, we do need to ask fundamental questions about how schools are run, and you're article might have been a good place to start. It's too bad you are so distracted by "reforms" like merit pay and standardized testing which "really [are] just an intensification of the same tactics that have been squeezing the life out of our classrooms for a good quarter-century now."

17 comments:

  1. Joe,

    I've been reading your stuff for a while and just love what you do and how you talk about teaching and learning!

    I'm currently stuck in a school system where testing, grades that mean nothing, and standardized everything run the show. I'm 4 years into this teaching thing and continually looking for my way out the door of the public side of education and stepping into the private side (waiting on oa masters degree).

    I far too often feel I'm hurting, rather than helping my students when I'm am made to comply with policies that I don't think have anything to do with learning. This, to say the least is frustrating. I'm am even more concerned with the state of learning in my school, along with many others, when I read about other schools that are doing it right. So your blog is a bit of a gift and a curse for me. I look at it as a beacon of hope for what works in the education world, yet it frustrates me that I too can't be in a school setting where this type of teaching and learning it happening.

    So, until I get the support and school district that can foster my teaching inquiries, I will continue to trudge on and improve my teaching as best I can with what I'm given.

    Also, a great Dan Pink ("Drive") RSAnimate talk on motivation and how the carrot and stick method really doesn't work unless your digging holes all day (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc).

    ReplyDelete
  2. Joe,

    I've been reading your stuff for a while and just love what you do and how you talk about teaching and learning!

    I'm currently stuck in a school system where testing, grades that mean nothing, and standardized everything run the show. I'm 4 years into this teaching thing and continually looking for my way out the door of the public side of education and stepping into the private side (waiting on oa masters degree).

    I far too often feel I'm hurting, rather than helping my students when I'm am made to comply with policies that I don't think have anything to do with learning. This, to say the least is frustrating. I'm am even more concerned with the state of learning in my school, along with many others, when I read about other schools that are doing it right. So your blog is a bit of a gift and a curse for me. I look at it as a beacon of hope for what works in the education world, yet it frustrates me that I too can't be in a school setting where this type of teaching and learning it happening.

    So, until I get the support and school district that can foster my teaching inquiries, I will continue to trudge on and improve my teaching as best I can with what I'm given.

    Also, a great Dan Pink ("Drive") RSAnimate talk on motivation and how the carrot and stick method really doesn't work unless your digging holes all day (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc).

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  3. Joe,
    Great post. I wrote something about this on my blog the day that Kevin Falcon announced it and as a BC Teacher I think we are going the wrong way in Education with the Liberals in charge.

    The idea of merit pay being tossed around is just another example. It has been proved time and again that this does not work and does not help to improve the school system yet politicians, with no knowledge of education, continue to propose these ludicrous ideas with an eye to garnering more votes.

    As readysetscience says in his post Dan Pink has proved that external motivation will only take you so far. I am motivated to do well for my students and to see them succeed at their endeavors is what makes me want to work harder, not increased pay.

    The night the announcement was made I was tweeting back and forth with a Falcon supporter who was under the impression that this was a brilliant idea. When I told him that there was no other way to effectively manage such a system of merit pay aside from using standardized tests he got defensive and was suggesting that they would use peer feedback and parent surveys as a means of determining 'master teachers'. Again a joke.

    Realistically the BC Liberals are looking to cut funding wherever they can in public education. The idea of merit pay is just another means to do this.

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  4. I would support merit pay increases if it truly rewarded the good work of great teachers and weeded out the bad ones. The single most important factor in our kids’ education is good teachers - not schools, not systems, not buildings, not even curriculums but we continue to accept mediocrity, neglect and worse from some professional educators. It would be simpler and more ethical to just dismiss the bad teachers but there likely isn't a political will to take on the unions.

    Joe - I am pleased that you are "motivated to do well for my students and to see them succeed
    " but surely you would admit that some of your colleagues are not motivated by the same values.

    The argument that it would be difficult to create valid metrics doesn't wash with me because it just serves to deprive too many students of their education.

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  5. Anon-

    The single most important factor in our kids' education is what goes on outside of school.


    What you meant to say, perhaps, was that teachers are the most important in-school factor.

    Most experts agree that out of school factors account for 60-90% of factors that influence a child's education.

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  6. @readysetscience: I can identify with your sense of urgency for improvement. I've found myself quite impatient for change amongst my peers.

    Remember that small, grassroots improvements are the only way change has ever come about.

    Keep reading, keep researching, keep learning and keep teaching.

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  7. I would have to agree with anonymous 11:21 AM. Some teachers just lock into the system because it's easy for them, not because they care about the kids at all. Once your on the grid, you're home free. We need to evaluate ALL TEACHERS to hone in on the ones that do our kids a disservice. I don't care what their reasons are. We need a better process of evaluation; call it what you will.

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  8. Great post.

    Pittsburgh PA superintendent Mark Roosevelt is someone I find interesting. His merit pay initiatives are based on a variety of evaluating factors over a period of years, rather than test scores.

    http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10164/1065352-53.stm

    I know of teachers who don't just do nothing for kids... they HURT kids. Surely having performance standards separate from student scores can be a good thing if implemented wisely?

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  9. You make some good points, but I can't say I agree with them all.

    "I mean, why wouldn't someone who is better at their job get paid more?"

    It is logical, and dare I say, reasonable. I spent several years in the public education system. Though the following may sound like bragging to some, I'm using this to illustrate a point. I did a great job there, becoming my team's leader within a short amount of time. I pushed differentiated instruction, was involved in lots of training (as a trainee and trainer), and was involved in every aspect of getting our students ready for the state assessments. I had fun, for the first several years, and felt proud of my accomplishments. The students loved me (for the most part of course), and I loved what I did.

    My reward for my effort was, the last year at this school, to receive exactly the kinds of classes I did not want. I was also paired with one of the friendliest but most incompetent co-teachers on campus. I was basically used as a way to get rid of said person, as the administration feared this person might try to sue when they attempted to terminate for incompetency.

    So do I feel like I got used? Do I feel outraged when I realize this incompetent teacher got paid a lot more than me simply because they had more years in the system? You bet I do. The stress of the situation, and how unethical it was, nearly drove me away from the profession entirely.

    "I wish it were as simple as Denley makes it sound: pay good teachers more - pay bad teachers less. Problem solved. And if you disagree, you're a heretic."

    I agree that it is definitely NOT that simple. Yet just because it is more complex than this one issue doesn't mean that this is an issue that should remain unaddressed.

    "How do Denley and other market-based "reformers" plan on filtering the good teachers from the bad?"

    Now this is a great question, one that needs a lot of reflection. I agree that this is not something that can be based solely on, or even mostly on, standardized tests. Thinking is volitional; it isn't logical to hold teachers solely responsible for the successes or
    failures of their students. Yet we DO need to come up with some ways to filter the good teachers from the bad.

    "However, demonizing teachers is exactly the premise behind merit pay. The whole idea that teachers and students are simply not "motivated" enough to perform is as arrogant as it is ignorant. Kohn explains:

    The premise of merit pay, and indeed of all rewards, is that people could be doing a better job but for some reason have decided to wait until it's bribed out of them."

    To be fair, some people do think like this. In my experience, teachers that are burned-out often feel very much this way. Yet it is also true that some teachers, as we've already discussed, are just FLAT OUT not good teachers and never will be, no matter what they are actually paid for the work. Call it merit pay, call it a reward, call it whatever you want, but in this type of situation, it still doesn't seem logical to continue to pay these teachers more than the ones that are working their butts off and actually getting results.

    "Even if they wouldn't mind larger paychecks, teachers are typically not all that money-driven. They keep telling us in surveys that the magical moment when a student suddenly understands is more important to them than another few bucks"

    I don't consider myself very money-driven (but I do enjoy having it), yet here I am arguing for more pay for better teachers. So why is that? It's the principle of the matter.

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  10. Here goes:

    Here are a few ideas gleaned from actually teaching for over a dozen years (something none of the legislators can say):

    ° Return accountability for learning back to the student. Make students accountable for their education - if they want it they have to work for it.

    ° Bring back alternatives for students who don't want college - real alternatives, not just the same college prep dressed up like a vocational academy. Our one size fits all system doesn't work. Kids come in all shapes and size with varied interests and aptitudes.

    ° Stop comparing teaching to a business. Businesses can refuse substandard components, lawyers turn away dicy cases and bankers won't loan to poor risks (our recent economic snafu aside). I can't refuse (nor do I want to) any student.

    ° Stop comparing US to THEM unless you are willing to look at everything they do - including their focus on the top 20% (rather than the bottom 20% where we seem to focus).

    ° If you want me to even consider using test scores they need to be end of course tests that measure material from my course.

    ...Then you need to explain to me how I am responsible for the student who missed 65 days or the one who shows up because a judge told him to show up or go to jail. And all he does is show up.

    ...After that you'll need to reconcile meeting students where they are with teaching to a rigid schedule.

    ...Realize that relying on a test assumes all students have identical ability, goals and interests and that the teacher is the only variable in their education

    ...Finally, you need to make the test as important to my students as it is to me. More important to them would be better.

    ° And then realize that experts in assessment agree that this is an improper use of a standardized test!

    ° Fairly compensate teachers for their work and respect that teachers have families and lives like everyone else. Asking us to work extra hours for your kiddo takes us away from our kiddos.

    ° Realize that nobody, not teachers, administrators or unions want to protect bad teachers. However, after putting in 3-5 years with good ratings it is not unreasonable to expect due process prior to being terminated. The failure to fire bad teachers falls on the backs of administrators who are unable to properly do their jobs!

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  11. Some more ideas:

    There are measurements in place that look at how well a teacher applies best practice and implements good teaching strategies. That is what a teacher should be critiqued upon.

    Unfortunately, the manner in which those measures are applied is pitiful. And believe it or not, it angers me (and most teachers) that we get fly by evaluations and satisfactory reviews when the administrator can't tell you what you are doing well and what you need to do to improve. We want to be better, and if there were a way to prove it one way or the other, I'd bet dollars to donuts that there aren't as many poor teachers in the system as many believe.

    You want to make it better?

    ° Require more evaluations per year - right now we get one (if we are lucky).

    ° Stop requiring administrators to announce when they will be doing your evaluation.

    ° Certify Master Teachers to do evaluations and work with teachers to improve their teaching methods. It will ease pressure on administrators.

    ° Require that evaluations be done by different people during the year.

    ° Please, please, please don't give us more paperwork and tracking and red tape! However, if you want to send a survey to parents with very specific questions, I'm for it. I do not support parents actually critiquing teachers. I don't want to have to compromise standards or ethics to please a parent.

    ° If you insist on including some form of student performance piece, it should be a much smaller part and it should be tied to grades somehow. Why should a failing student be part of my evaluation?

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  12. As long as we insist that the only measure of success be college preparation, we will fail the majority of students.

    We should have real alternatives for students who aren't interested in going to college. Vocational training, with real, separate curricula would eliminate much of the student apathy. You'd see graduation rates rise, attendance improve and engaged learners naturally developing learning gains.

    As it is, we have vocational programs that are really the same college prep math and science classes.

    There is more to say on that topic, but that's a start.

    We also need to stop "making things okay."

    For example, I have a very nice student who has missed 60 days of class. He has been ill but failed to fill out the forms required for hospital/homebound instruction.

    Now I am asked to "help him graduate." Really? I like him and I'm sorry he was sick, but there is no way he should receive credit for my class.

    The Department of Education needs to be killed. We have so many opposing directives that were developed by bureaucrats with no thought to the whole. Teachers spend hours filling out paperwork and documenting things, often redundantly, to meet federal mandates. Get us back to teaching!

    (My comments are based on what we are going through here in Florida. Some may be local issues only, although having taught in 4 districts and in two states, the issues have been fairly consistent.)

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  13. Hmm... a little out of order (I thought this posted)...

    Here goes:

    Here are a few ideas gleaned from actually teaching for over a dozen years (something none of the legislators can say):

    ° Return accountability for learning back to the student. Make students accountable for their education - if they want it they have to work for it.

    ° Bring back alternatives for students who don't want college - real alternatives, not just the same college prep dressed up like a vocational academy. Our one size fits all system doesn't work. Kids come in all shapes and size with varied interests and aptitudes.

    ° Stop comparing teaching to a business. Businesses can refuse substandard components, lawyers turn away dicy cases and bankers won't loan to poor risks (our recent economic snafu aside). I can't refuse (nor do I want to) any student.

    ° Stop comparing US to THEM unless you are willing to look at everything they do - including their focus on the top 20% (rather than the bottom 20% where we seem to focus).

    ° If you want me to even consider using test scores they need to be end of course tests that measure material from my course.

    ...Then you need to explain to me how I am responsible for the student who missed 65 days or the one who shows up because a judge told him to show up or go to jail. And all he does is show up.

    ...After that you'll need to reconcile meeting students where they are with teaching to a rigid schedule.

    ...Realize that relying on a test assumes all students have identical ability, goals and interests and that the teacher is the only variable in their education

    ...Finally, you need to make the test as important to my students as it is to me. More important to them would be better.

    ° And then realize that experts in assessment agree that this is an improper use of a standardized test!

    ° Fairly compensate teachers for their work and respect that teachers have families and lives like everyone else. Asking us to work extra hours for your kiddo takes us away from our kiddos.

    ° Realize that nobody, not teachers, administrators or unions want to protect bad teachers. However, after putting in 3-5 years with good ratings it is not unreasonable to expect due process prior to being terminated. The failure to fire bad teachers falls on the backs of administrators who are unable to properly do their jobs!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Here goes:

    ° Return accountability for learning back to the student. Make students accountable for their education - if they want it they have to work for it.

    ° Bring back alternatives for students who don't want college - real alternatives, not just the same college prep dressed up like a vocational academy. Our one size fits all system doesn't work. Kids come in all shapes and size with varied interests and aptitudes.

    ° Stop comparing teaching to a business. Businesses can refuse substandard components, lawyers turn away dicy cases and bankers won't loan to poor risks (our recent economic snafu aside). I can't refuse (nor do I want to) any student.

    ° Stop comparing US to THEM unless you are willing to look at everything they do - including their focus on the top 20% (rather than the bottom 20% where we seem to focus).

    ° If you want me to even consider using test scores they need to be end of course tests that measure material from my course.

    ...Then you need to explain to me how I am responsible for the student who missed 65 days or the one who shows up because a judge told him to show up or go to jail. And all he does is show up.

    ...After that you'll need to reconcile meeting students where they are with teaching to a rigid schedule.

    ...Realize that relying on a test assumes all students have identical ability, goals and interests and that the teacher is the only variable in their education

    ...Finally, you need to make the test as important to my students as it is to me. More important to them would be better.

    ° And then realize that experts in assessment agree that this is an improper use of a standardized test!

    ReplyDelete
  15. ° Fairly compensate teachers for their work and respect that teachers have families and lives like everyone else. Asking us to work extra hours for your kiddo takes us away from our kiddos.

    ° Realize that nobody, not teachers, administrators or unions want to protect bad teachers. However, after putting in 3-5 years with good ratings it is not unreasonable to expect due process prior to being terminated. The failure to fire bad teachers falls on the backs of administrators who are unable to properly do their jobs!

    ReplyDelete
  16. I ranted about Mr. Falcon the day he released his ridiculous statement. Thanks for filtering Mr. Denley's post in such a way that your moderate comments kept my blood pressure in check. Here is a link to my post on the topic. http://readlisaread.edublogs.org/2011/01/05/dear-kevin-falcon-about-teacher-merit-pay/

    Thanks for the conversation!

    ReplyDelete
  17. The problem when discussing merit pay with the general audience is that everyone was a student once, and hence every person that attended school knows from experience that teacher differentiation exists. You can't tell me that you have never thought back to your school years and reminisced about Mrs X, who was a great teacher and you remember to this day what she told you about biology, or shuddered at the memory of Mrs Y, who was a mean-spirited person who couldn't care less what you learned and who turned you off English literature forever.

    So, as a non-teacher, I would say to teachers that you are much better off fighting the "how do we effectively set up and manage a merit-pay system" fight, rather than trying to defend its lack on various arguments which (while individually reasonable) make it seem like there is a denial of the underlying premise.

    ReplyDelete

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