Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Teachers and Merit Pay is a Bad Combination

Obama has come out in favor of pay-for-performance for teachers. He has made it one of the main parts of his educational reform initiative. I am not sure yet how he plans to structure this pay-for-performance plan, if at all. However, I am not keen on the idea.

I object to this notion for many reasons. The first is that merit systems in general have huge flaws. I have worked under various merit systems, from retail commission, to formal merit systems in government and corporate America. I always find them unfair to the employees and often corrupt. Education, like medical care, is not a business. And you can't use pay systems designed for cooperate, profit driven businesses for schools.

The second objection deals with education specifically. Students aren't products in the traditional sense. And the trouble for teachers is that they are proving a service whose quality is pretty tough to measure. The idea that standardized tests are the answer is false. I write standardized tests for a living. And I have said before that using a test that is meant to gauge proficiency or knowledge of students for pay decisions for teachers is an abuse and misuse of the test. People in educational testing should not see this as a boon to their profession, but as a threat to its validity. I know this from first hand experience. When teachers start loosing money due to standardized tests, they will turn the tests into political boondoggles that will render them completely invalid. Their unions will pressure state Depts. of education to dumb them down, recalibrate the cut scores to make passing easier, and the like. When all else fails, blame the test and the people who wrote it. I live this every day in my work. And of that doesn't work . . . blame the teachers. Never ever blame the student.

Merit pay systems based on student performance severely undercut the authority of teachers in the classroom. Students will fail them on purpose because there is no reason not to. So unless there are some serious incentives for the students to preform on these tests, basing pay on them is reckless. Back when I was taking standardized tests, it was merely 3 days of the week I got off early from school because we had testing. I didn't care how well I did. It meant nothing to me. My grades did. That was all that counted.

When California started requiring high school exit exams, the teachers' union got implementation postponed nearly 2 years. It is a minimum competency exam. So when 1 million students failed to pass, they got 3 additional tries. And the media went wild, not about how illiterate our students are, but at how unfair the test was. It goes against the American grain to deny our little sweeties a diploma, sports, band or the like just because some stupid teacher failed little Johnny or because my kid didn't pass some silly exam one time. They had crap teachers. Hello! Your kid failed a basic test after 12 years of school and a host of "crap" teachers? Not one good one in all those years? And what were you doing at home to encourage your kid?

Furthermore, there is the lottery effect. If you are lucky as a teacher to get a nice class, full of upper-middle income, mostly white, English speaking kids, you will do well in a merit system. If, however, you are cursed with an inner city, non-English class, you're screwed. So any merit system would have to take into account the profiles of the students. And guess what! If schools started profiling students, the ACLU would jump on that.

We have been blaming students and schools for years and have seen results only falter. I think we ought to start considering the conduct and motivation of students for a change.


Raised By Republicans said...

Great post US West!

Another thing to worry about is that the test scores they would likely rely upon are really problematic. I have a friend who specializes in analyzing how you interpret test scores and the biggest thing I've learned in our beer soaked conversations is that tests are easily abused and just as easily misinterpreted.

So we have people advocating a merit pay system that US West points out is vulnerable to corruption, to reward performance that is probably dominated by socioeconomic factors outside the teachers' control, and likely using measurement techniques that are suspect at best and invalid under most circumstances.

Yep, bad idea to put it mildly.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Nice post! My experience with merit systems--while not as extensive--is certainly consistent with yours. This is an example of a larger problem: How can one objectively measure a process with a complex and multivariate outcome, one that cannot be reduced to a number? I have done some research on applying a "balance scorecard" approach to research and development laboratories, as well as trying to measure the "effectiveness" of different methods of gathering intelligence. As the MBAs like to say, there is no silver bullet.

From a statistical point of view, using standardized tests to evaluate classroom performance seems especially daunting because class sizes are not very small or very large but fall into that tricky middle category around twenty to thirty students. There is enough consistency that the test "feels" meaningful and seems reasonable, but in truth there is enough variability that the sorts of gradations that we are trying to tease out will get swamped. Too much noise.

And all that is before we even deal with any of the real-world concerns you raised, USWest: The design of the test is subject to pressure from unions and administrators; some teachers feel forced to game the system by "teaching to the test"; and the students may well not care anyway. And as you also pointed out, the general unwillingness to fail or otherwise negatively impact students means that the idea of accurate assessment is somewhat of an orphan anyway.

If we are going to go to some kind of merit-pay based system, I think we may need to go back to good old peer review. Have three random teachers from some other school--preferably another state entirely--sit in on your class for a week and then make their recommendations. Like the jury system, this would rely on the integrity of the teachers on the mini-panel... But I feel that may be better than relying on the validity of a standardized test. Of course, the "balanced scorecard" approach would be do both objective test and subjective evaluation somehow. For what that's worth.

Pombat said...

Total agreement here - merit-based pay for teachers is a bad, bad idea! Dr.S's mini-review panels seem sensible, and are actually what learner teachers in the UK face prior to becoming fully qualified (albeit with teachers from their school, and throughout the year, with plenty of feedback for improvement).

The UK's league tables have produced a similar host of problems to those that merit-based pay would cause, namely that teachers wind up pressured to get as many kids to pass the tests as possible, so rather than giving them a full and varied education, they simply teach to the test, meaning the kids learn, but they do not understand.

A nice example of this is solving quadratic equations - it's very easy to teach kids a formula by rote, with them memorising which number has to be stuffed in where in order for the right answer to pop out. It's far better though to help them to really understand where the answer is coming from.

And of course there's all the class factors already mentioned - the kids who need the best teachers are those who are least likely to be acing tests with plenty of support from home :-(

Raised By Republicans said...

Mini review panels is essentially what the tenure process is in universities in the US (I don't know about analogous procedures overseas).

Raised By Republicans said...

Of course the problem with the tenure review process in US universities is that it is particularly vulnerable to abuse by spiteful senior colleagues and vulnerable to colleagues establishing norms of lax standards that effectively nullify the panels' purpose (screening out poor performers). Actually, the latter problem is more common from what I see/hear.

Universities solve this (or try to) by having layers of panels. First your immediate colleagues judge you then some administrative level higher than your immediate colleagues reviews their judgement.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I respectfully disagree. There were a lot of bad teachers where I went to school, and I happened to go to some very good suburban schools. Teachers who don't know their subject matter or don't care, gliding along because of tenure. This is a real problem that should not be swept under the rug or just blamed on parents or students.

The problem is that K-12 teaching is an undervalued profession. It is low paid and requires relatively little educational success to enter. There is a reason that the top performing university students do not want to be teachers. The job pays poorly and has low prestige.

I think the solution to the problem must involve paying more for better teachers. In most places of business, higher-value employees are paid more. This is true at most universities also, by the way.

I am convinced that if you made starting salaries for K-12 teachers $100K, the educational system would undergo a revolution within a decade.

Is the solution small increments of additional merit pay based on standardized test scores? I doubt it - even without the lottery effect ably discussed here, the tests just don't measure how good the teachers are. It's not what they measure. Merit pay of this kind probably does more to destroy morale than build it. As I have observed in the past, the way to piss off someone while simultaneously giving them a $25K raise is to give her neighbor a $50K raise for the same job without some reason that both can believe as to the higher value of the latter's performance.

Obviously, the teachers unions often throw up signficant obstacles. I suggest that they do so not out of malevolence, but out of a reaction to the obstacles thrown in their paths by administrators and state 'education' bureaucrats. The best teachers I can remember succeeded by defying the state curriculum requirements. Their complaints were low pay but, even worse, the poor treatment and micromanagement by bureaucrats. Even $100K/year woudln't make (many) people want to clean toilets for a living.

I am reminded of Tolstoy's comment about the law, that we woudl all be better off if we paid all the judges, lawyhers, policemen exactly what they are paid now, but had them do nothing. That is how I feel about most school administrators. They are also part of the problem. Unlike teachers, the solution is not to do better recruiting through higher pay - the solution is to fire 2/3 of them and ask the rest to figure out who the good teachers are, reward them with money, and get the hell out of their way.

Raised By Republicans said...

I don't think anyone was suggesting that bad teachers aren't a problem or that poor performance is entirely due to factors out of the teachers' control.

I do think that factors out of the teachers' control can dominate the over picture there. I think it is possible for the overall socioeconomic conditions in a school to make a good teacher look bad or a bad teacher look good depending on the measure being used.

Speaking for myself, my concern with merit pay is about how merit gets measured and weather we can find a valid and reliable measure. In principle I don't oppose paying good teachers more than mediocre or bad teachers. The problem is sorting them.

USwest said...

RBR and Dr. S make good points. LTG, teachers should be paid more. And there is a lot of unnecessary micro managing in the public school system.

Education is incredibly political. Think about countries where women go to school in secret for fear of their lives. If education were harmless, this wouldn't happen.

Pay is not the only incentive for teachers. Lack of interference is a big incentive. I went to a small Catholic school where lay teachers made less money that public school teachers, but where they were quite happy. The school only had 300 students across 8 grades, the principle worked closely with her teachers, and the state left everyone alone. We used books that were 20 years old because we couldn't afford new ones every year. We had a lot of homework, and all the parents were pulling in the same direction. And at home the teacher was always right. Now I hear parents tell me how the teacher is victimizing their child, not paying enough attention to their child's individual needs, etc. And that seems to give the kid a pass when he/she behaves badly. Lawsuits and the like have rendered our teachers powerless to manager their classrooms.

The problem then is compounded with merit pay systems where you are using the assessment instrument incorrectly. You can use a power drill to bore a hole in a brick,or you can try using a hammer and nail. You will get a hole either way, but it won't be neat, and the hole won't be very deep.

The panel idea isn't bad, but it is time consuming and labor intensive, even more so if you tried getting people out of state. If you use local people, then corruption sets in. We have merit boards drawn "randomly" from the staff. Your boss awards some points, the "impartial board" awards the rest. All of this is based on written input from your boss and written input from the employee. The problem is that the boards 1) aren't as random as they should be with the same people being called over and over. I've been nominated to serve twice by bosses, but have never been called, while some people are called so often that they now hold workshops on how to write your "input" for the merit board to achieve better results. Furthermore, I work with people from cultures where you never "Brag" about you accomplishments, and where English is a second language, so writing up an input is an anathema. And if the merit board doesn't understand your job, good luck trying to explain that, and your accomplishments in the limited amount of space. Then the guy who does everything but teach well, like serving on this committee or that board is deemed more valuable than they guy who is a really good teacher. It's complicated, time consuming, and has become a colossal joke, dreaded by all every year.

Then, the pool of money to be awarded is about the same or less from one year to the next. Per employee, it isn't much. So from the efficiency standpoint the merit system has not improved teaching or student outcomes and has actually suppressed our pay compared to those in the GS system.

In public school, handing teachers with pink slips at the end of each school year and making them wait one week before school starts to see if they will have a job or not doesn't' help. Why would anyone want to deal with that?

To be honest, I am not sure what the best system would be to award good teachers. What I do know that that NCLB and all the BS that teachers have to put up with have not helped. I say pay them more, extend the school day and use occasional testing as a measure of student achievement only. Then make teachers get a BA, let them student teach until they have a masters degree, only them awarding them full status as a teacher. Then let limit them teaching their specialty, even in say grades 1-6 instead of one teacher all day.

Attack the problem where it lives for a change instead of a the fringe.

Raised By Republicans said...

J.Q. Wilson's book, Bureaucracy, talks about different types of agencies and how they are overseen. One of the types he talks about is agencies for whom the outcomes are observable but the process is either impossible or difficult to observe. Education is a classic example. This makes it very very difficult to come up with consistent measures for teacher quality that don't depend fundamentally on outcomes that themselves depend on a variety of factors in addition to teacher quality.

The Law Talking Guy said...

What's infuriating to me is that, in every school, everyone, including the parents, know exactly who the good and bad teachers are. There's no mystery there. Why is this so hard to figure out how to write it down and reward accordingly? I mean, we do it here with staff all the time.

Anonymous said...

When I have worked under merit based systems, I have loved it. I never failed to get the merit pay and or a raise.

Did anyone besides me know that you can get a $200 per week raise by paying a bribe of $1000 in cash to the evaluator?

You want to improve education? It is simple. Any student that drops out or gets bad grades is analyzed to find out which teachers that he/she had. 5 per cent bad teachers can ruin the best school system. If you find the teachers that the dropouts had are consistently the same, fire the teachers.

I worked a temp for an industrial consulting group in an electronics plant that was going broke because so many final products failed testing. Hell, the consultant that I worked with took me into a place in the warehouse where they had returned products stacked to the roof. He said that they had somewhere between 15 and 30 million dollars tied up in returned products. He recognized that I had some sense and let me play around.

What I did was trace which failed products had gone through the same piece part production lines and what equipment was used. There were 5 machines that always showed up, insert machines that consistently had failed final parts. Testing showed that the parts at that point were good when they came out of the machine.

Taking those machines out of production was an expensive trial. I was a temp, but I could have cared less if they fired me so I went to the head of production and suggested that the five machines be taken off line. He did it and the number of failed final boards dropped like a stone.

Then I was fired.

Anonymous said...

For more information about merit pay and how it ties in to charter schools and the Broad Foundation, check out

The Law Talking Guy said...

Anonymous: while you are correct that corruption will destroy merit pay, it will destroy any system. I am not sure that the capacity for corruption in merit pay awards is signifciantly different from the norm.

I love your story, by the way. But I think it's even easier than that. Just anonymously and secretly ask 50 parents and 10% of the teachers to rate everyone (except themselves personally). I suspect the results will be surprisingly uniform.

USWest said...

Dora, thanks for the blog. Very interesting!

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