Merit Pay: It Won't Work II

Merit Pay: It Won't Work I is here.
Retro reform idea - Merit Pay
Thursday, May 28, 2009

Now and then I like to post about writers who have contributed to our knowledge about progressive education. It would be nice to talk about new ideas, but if we’re going to discuss old ideas, we should at least know what’s already been said so we can stop repeating ourselves and either move the discussion forward or change the subject.

EdSec Duncan, for example, has a big pile of money he wants to use to “incent” and reward excellence “based on student achievement” because he believes that a quality education for every student is a civil right. That’s a nice idea, but we need to agree on some key details before we can expect to see much progress there. Prof. Daniel Willingham posted a video on You Tube, offering six reasons why merit pay will not work. Three reasons are about why test scores won’t give us valid information about teacher effectiveness, and the other three are about social factors that make some classes more challenging than others.

James Herndon covered this topic in his own special way 25 years ago in Notes From a Schoolteacher:
The idea that if you’re paid more you’ll work harder may apply to selling encyclopedias. If you’re a lion-tamer, you’re not going to work any harder just because you’ll be paid more. The job of a teacher is more like a lion-tamer, I think.
-Al Shanker, President

I’ve tried hard to find something to say, pro or con, about merit pay - something that has not already been said hundreds of times. Shanker’s remark, above, is one point of view. You must work hard, as a schoolteacher, simply in order to avoid being eaten alive. Subduing the lion’s natural appetite comes first - after that is assured, maybe you’ll be able to teach him a trick or two.

Merit pay has been around a long time in the corporate / industrial world, but even there no one seems satisfied with it. No research can be found which agrees that the salesman works harder or is more successful at his trade if he is given extra pay for “merit.”

It is, anyway, quite beside the point whether one works hard or not. Success is the point. But even there, sales managers report that no one is satisfied if the person who demonstrably sells the most of whatever product it is, is paid more. The other salesmen argue that they had bad territories, mix-ups in their deliveries, no cooperation from the front office, storms - otherwise they would have been right up there.

Teachers, like salesmen, all believe that they are among the very best at their job. You simply must believe that in order to continue teaching (and probably selling).

You begin to teach as a lion-tamer, to be sure and, if not eaten up, go on to ask other teachers what they do here and there, what “works” for them, and quite soon, by some curious amalgam, you develop a way to work in the classroom which suits you and which you think is best … best, considering the various and vast distances between what you must do, want to do, and can do.

You think it best, for you and the students, or for the students and you.

I certainly think that my “style” or “strategy” in the classroom is the best. That’s why I do it that way. I also know that my opinion is not shared by the other teachers at Spanish Main, each of whom, quite rightly, prefers his own.

The whole idea of merit pay, then, seems to founder at this point. If we all think that we are among the best, how are we to reward the best?

If we must decide who is the best, then who is to decide, and on what basis?
Herndon doesn’t say anything about test scores, presumably because nobody had the genius idea of using them to compare teachers. Instead, he tells us that the “plans suggest a committee” of roving teachers who would visit schools and rate them based on their observations. Herndon wonders about the inferences these people would draw if they paid him a surprise visit.
The visiting team, concluding that this teacher is not teaching at all, let alone well, is not dedicated, doesn’t give a damn, certainly deserves no merit pay (if he deserves to be paid at all!) - the team has just missed out on one of the best teachers in the world! They are unaware of it.

Too late, then, for my thoughtful discourse on what teaching is, how students learn, etc.!

Has something been left out in this discussion? I want to cover everything about this now; I never want to return to it.

Well, the basis is left out. The standard, criterion, measure, rule of thumb … anything, any way by which to tell the great teachers from the simply OK teachers. The standard, etc., by which to tell the wonderful teaching strategies from the mediocre ones.

Are the great teachers more entertaining? Have they better intellectual command of their subjects? Have they greater rapport with the students? Are they more efficient, provide more time on task? Are they more aware of their students’ ethnic backgrounds, social class, personal or family problems? All of the above? Well, some of the above?

No one knows.

Does anyone know whether students actually learn more from great teachers, if you could ever find out who were the great teachers?

No one knows that either. The sentence just above sounds insane (p. 85).
It would be so much more interesting to talk about that.
h/t Doug Noon

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