Friday, June 11, 2010

Why Merit Pay for Teachers Is a Bad Idea

Everyone knows that our nation's public schools are in a state of crisis. (Everyone also knows that the public school their individual child goes to is doing a good job, but they assume that there must be a problem with all the others because they keep hearing about "the crisis in our nation's public schools". But that's a whole other post.) But nobody seems to know what to do about it. One of the most popular suggestions involves "merit pay increases" for teachers whose students do well in school.

First and foremost, this is fundamentally wrong-headed. It betrays a lot of the unintentional biases of the people complaining about our nation's education that they think it can be solved by incentive pay; they're assuming that teachers don't really care about the kids, so long as they get a good paycheck out of the deal, and that they only way to motivate them is with a few extra bucks if they make the kid smarter. News flash to everyone involved: Nobody becomes a teacher for the money. The job is thankless enough that you only do it if you really, genuinely like educating kids.

Second, this rests on a false assumption; namely, that teachers can control the learning ability of their students. A host of other factors, from parental involvement to socio-economic background to plain old innate intelligence, helps or hinders a child's education. Doling out merit pay to teachers would be like giving incentive pay to someone for assembling a machine within a certain time frame, then pointing them to a pile of random car parts and saying, "Get to it."

And third, this violates one of the most fundamental and basic rules of doling out money, which is "Never put incentive pay in the hands of someone who controls the conditions of it being released." As mentioned, teachers don't make a ton of money. Telling them that they can have extra cash if they're lenient graders or give the children unethical amounts of assistance on standardized tests is putting a lot of temptation in the way of people who might be in some serious need of money. While most teachers don't do the job for the money, it's Rule Number One: Don't put temptation in people's way, or they might just take it.

Of course, you could take the time, effort, and expense to enforce ethical guidelines and make sure teachers can't cheat...but honestly, you could also just hire more teachers, since the clearest correlation has always been between class size and academic success. But since the whole "crisis" is a thinly-disguised attempt to get rid of the teachers' union to begin with, it's not likely that anyone will propose a solution that involves hiring extra ones.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. - a teacher

magidin said...

Exactly. Now, could I send this to my local paper as a guest editorial? (-;

Theopacius said...

Agreed. The temptation to fudge numbers and grades is overwhelming. I've seen that even at private schools -- teachers tweaking a student's grades so as to keep parents happy and administrators viewing their class as a success. Then, this student goes to the next teacher in that subject unprepared, and goes off to college the same way.

Hiring more teachers is not a bad idea. Also, making it easier for qualified individuals to become a teacher.

Anonymous said...

"And third, this violates one of the most fundamental and basic rules of doling out money, which is 'Never put incentive pay in the hands of someone who controls the conditions of it being released.'"

And there are perfect examples of this - when No Child Left Behind was implemented in New Jersey, and school funding became tied to standardized test performance, when teacher quality was publicly tied to standardized performance, there was a huge kerfluffle as it came to light that Camden (I believe it was) schools were misreporting and doctoring student performance on tests. Quelle surprise! Meanwhile, in other states, the standards for tests were simply lowered officially, so more students would "succeed".

The simple, best argument against merit-based incentive for teachers, though, is that you can't objectively measure teacher performance in a meaningful way. There's no metric that can't be perverted, made unfair, or tied to (as you mention) such a vast host of factors beyond teacher control that it's meaningless.

The "crisis" in education is simply that we expect more and more of fewer and fewer teachers, and disrespect them as they do their best to deliver. We expect teachers to be psychologists and social workers and nurses and administrators on top of simply being educators, and then all too many parents choose to blame the teachers for every problem their child developed while said parents were too busy to pay attention.

magidin said...

Not only is the teacher profession somewhat devalued, and the pay getting comparatively worse with harder working conditions; part of the "crisis" is also the simple result of more and more people going on to High School and College. There was a time when only a comparatively few went on to college; as more and more people go to college, the average drops. And even if we were to posit the possibility of keeping the average exactly the same as it was before, as more and more people get college degrees, the marginal value of a college degree necessarily drops. The same is true of a High School diploma and High school education. It isn't just that the quality is somewhat less than it was, it's also that as more and more people have High School diplomas, the advantage that a diploma confers upon the holder is lessened. This is often perceived as a consequence of dropping quality, but that's not the case. There was a time when simply knowing how to read and write was the passport to a better life, now it is merely the least that is expected to function. The same holds for high school, and increasingly for college, education. And this helps skew perception too.

Return teacher pay and working conditions to the comparative level where they were in the 40s and 50s, and you'll see an improvement in education.

Eric Teall said...

Don't you all know that schools are just like businesses? My assistant principal was just explaining this to me the other day. (Ugh.)

Thanks for the post, John. You just made my day by saying all true things.

magidin said...

@Eric: They are like businesses in the sense that they are full of incompetent middle-managers that are wrong-headed. clueless, and mainly in the way of the people who do the real work, sure. Your Assistant Principal was just making the point by example.

fifthfiend said...

First and foremost, this is fundamentally wrong-headed. It betrays a lot of the unintentional biases of the people complaining about our nation's education that they think it can be solved by incentive pay; they're assuming that teachers don't really care about the kids, so long as they get a good paycheck out of the deal

TBH I think this actually should be the case, people absolutely should be able to become teachers for no reason other than that it seems like a good way to earn a lot of money relative to the skills, education, and commitment they bring to the table.

Won't ever happen, because it would require paying teachers a whole hell of a lot more money than anyone ever will, but there you are.

Anonymous said...

One of the worst things about efforts to "fix" the educational system is that most of the people in charge of these crusades have never taught, have no background in pedagogy, educational theory, or the psychology of learning, and have no real interest in the intangible benefits of learning -- they perceive all education as having no value except monetary profit (by way of business and technological innovation).

So teachers end up with politicians ordering them to teach using methods that every expert knows to be faulty -- and then the teachers are blamed when the politicians' faulty methods faile.

So teachers end up with politicians disrespecting history classes, humanities classes, and creative writing classes -- and then the teachers are blamed when the schools produce students with no sense of history, no sense of the human condition, and no creativity.

If you can solve this, you will do more good for this country than any other human being in its history.