Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Honest Discussion of Merit Pay?

I find it troubling that discussions around merit pay (or performance incentives, or whatever the iteration at hand or preferred terminology may be), never quite seems to be completely honest.  Even when people are trying to be honest, it seems that part of the discussion is based on half-truths and misconceptions.

Take this recent anti-merit pay op-ed in EdWeek by Kim Marshall, for example.  He points out a number of faulty assumptions that many make when discussing merit pay, and then makes some of her own.

He's more or less correct when he says "The best teachers are already working incredibly long hours, and there’s no evidence that extra pay will make them work harder or smarter".  One could argue that other fields provide some evidence, but to date there's virtually no evidence (certainly no experimental evidence in the U.S.) that merit pay will make teachers work harder -- or that if they did work harder that this would subsequently yield better results.  It may be the case that many teachers are working pretty much as hard as they can and/or wouldn't be better teachers if they worked harder (they may pursue the wrong strategies or simply become more stressed).

But then he says "Teachers who are rewarded for their own students’ test-score gains are less likely to share ideas with their colleagues."  This is demonstrably false.  Every merit pay scheme I know of is designed to prevent teachers from competing with teachers at their own school for a share of a defined pool of money.  The experiment that just concluded in Nashville compared the performance of teachers' students to the typical historical performance -- not to how other kids in the school performed.

His other points are mostly valid, though not necessarily precise.  It's true that researchers say it takes three years of data to accurately estimate the effectiveness of a teacher (as measured by standardized tests).  It's true that incentivizing higher test scores also incentivizes more test prep and even cheating -- but by that logic it would also incentivize harder work, which he earlier dismissed.  He says half of all teachers teach untested subjects, but in some states it's closer to 70%.

I have yet to find a discussion of merit pay that's both based on facts rather than conjecture and approaches the topic in an unbiased way.  People on both sides of the argument are making many dangerous assumptions, often based on incorrect information.  The fact is that merit pay is utterly unproven in American schools and that while we can guess how it might affect teachers and schools, we simply can't know for sure until we try.

Right now, the idea is spreading rapidly, and I worry that the continuation or termination of the trend is going to depend more on half-informed arguments rather than sober analysis of research.

9 comments:

Roger Sweeny said...

I worry that the continuation or termination of the trend is going to depend more on half-informed arguments rather than sober analysis of research.

Why should this be different from everything else in this business?

Okay, a little too cynical.

Or is it?

Mr. Harris said...

Corey, In New York there is a concerted effort to close public high schools while raising the charter ceiling so that charters can continue to replace publics (middle schools and elementary schools next?).

My question is; why should we believe the debate about merit pay is anything more then cover for the actual agenda: eliminating public schools?

Considering that we're still years away from a comprehensive definition of "what effective teaching is" (the Gates Foundation study commences next year and lasts 2 years)and that would necessarily precede any wide-scale proliferation of merit pay schemes. It doesn't appear that the reform crowd is actually interested implementing teacher accountability, but rather using the terminology to win over politicians, business leaders, civic leaders, and the general public.

Perhaps I'm being cynical, but shouldn't there be a consensus of agreement on many of these issues before the old system is bulldozed for a new and unproven system?

Rachel said...

One of the things I find completely frustrating about the discussions of merit pay is that the proponents don't seem to look at all closely to what is done in the private sector.

I've met very few people in the private sector who feel that their annual evaluation process is meaningful, and managers I know well tend to want to dampen the "you're deserving and you're not" dynamic because it undermines moral.

It seems to me that if reformers want to take on the unions in a meaningful way, making it a) easier to remove really ineffective teachers and b) instituting a few "merit-based" steps on the salary schedule would be a lot more useful than trying to implement some Skinner-esque social engineering scheme of annual rewards for jumping through the right teaching hoops.

Attorney DC said...

Corey, you said: "But then she says "Teachers who are rewarded for their own students’ test-score gains are less likely to share ideas with their colleagues." This is demonstrably false. Every merit pay scheme I know of is designed to prevent teachers from competing with teachers at their own school for a share of a defined pool of money."

Actually, a friend of mine teaches in a public school in the DC suburbs where exactly this type of merit pay system exists: Each year, teachers who want to go through the process "apply" for merit pay bonuses. A set number of teachers can receive the merit bonuses in the school in any given year. So, in fact, the teachers ARE competing against each other. Just one example, but I'd be willing to bet that there are other schools in the U.S. with similar set-ups.

Ceolaf said...

Lots to say, but just this for me.

Kim Marshall is, as I understand it, a man.

In fact, if you google "kim marshall" and follow the very first link, you get a picture of him on the font page of his The Marshall Memo site.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Oops! Thanks for pointing that out, Ceolaf -- it's been fixed.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

ADC: Duly noted, I'm not aware of the details of every merit pay scheme out there. But I'm confident that the majority are designed in such a way that there's not a disincentive to working with another teacher in one's school.

Alexander Hoffman said...

This is an unfair criticism, quite ironically so.

I've addressed this over at Gotham Schools, though not the particular issue of individual merit pay. Rather, I've addressed Mr. Bower's mandates regarding accepting forms of argument or discussion.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Alexander,

I've addressed your points on the GothamSchools blog. While my post is somewhat hastily written and not always exactly precise, I stand by what it says. I think it's a problem that so many of the discussions surrounding are simply conjecture based on half-truths, assumptions, and opinion.