Susan Troller had a typically good and very substantive article in the Capital Times this week about merit pay for teachers and other dimensions of teacher evaluations.
Merit pay is an issue that highlights the culture clash between the new breed of educational reformers and the traditional education establishment that finds its foundation in teachers and their unions.
Educational reformers nowadays frequently come to education as an avocation after successful business careers. These reformers, like Bill Gates and Eli Broad, believe that our approach to education can be improved if we import the sort of approaches to quality and innovation that have proved effective in the business world.
So, for example, let’s figure out what’s the single most important school-based variable in determining student achievement. Research indicates that it’s the quality of the teacher. Well then, let’s evaluate teachers in a way that lets us assess that quality, let’s put in place professional development that will allow our teachers to enhance that quality, and let’s have compensation systems that allow us to reward that quality.
That’s not exactly the way we do it now. Our teacher compensation system is based on seniority and the accumulation of professional degrees. At best, these factors are only tangentially related to teacher quality. So the reformers say, let’s overhaul the system and make it (to our way of thinking) more rational. A keystone to any proposal for reform is a merit pay system that somehow links teacher compensation to teacher quality as manifested though enhanced student achievement.
And, by and large, teachers and their unions don’t like it, as the Cap Times article made clear. A whole host of objections have been raised to merit pay for teachers. Some of the objections have some validity and others do not. Let’s try to sort through them.
Here are four more-or-less valid reasons why teachers may not like merit pay:
1. WKCE is a lousy test. Since our focus is enhanced student achievement, we want to assess the extent to which our teachers enhance our students’ learning. The obvious way to do this is by looking at how a teacher’s students perform on a standardized test, since this is a common measure that enables us to draw comparisons across classrooms. Unfortunately, the standardized test we currently have in Wisconsin is the WKCE, and it’s just not very good for these purposes. For one thing, it is administered in the fall, so it can’t measure the performance of a student’s current teacher. For another, it is not administered to high school students at any time after the fall of their sophomore year. Any serious effort to use standardized test results as a meaningful part of teacher evaluation will probably have to wait until we have better standardized tests. I am optimistic that better tests are on their way but they won’t be here for at least a few years.
2. It’s a zero-sum game. Without more money overall, moving to a merit pay approach is a zero-sum game, with a loser for every winner. Michelle Rhee, the superintendent of the Washington, D.C. school system, is able to offer significantly higher salaries to effective teachers in D.C. schools because she was able to attract a number of donors to contribute the millions necessary for the pay bumps. We don’t have that here. If we’re not able to increase the size of the overall pay pie, then for anyone who gets a bigger piece, someone else is going to have to make do with less. If teachers generally tend to be risk-averse when it comes to salary, and I think that they probably do, a change to a more variable and less predictable pay system is not likely to be welcomed.
3. It’s too hard to figure out who is actually good. There are a number of challenges in evaluating teacher performance. First, we’re not primarily concerned about teaching, we’re concerned about learning, so teaching excellence isn’t as easy to identify as other examples of stellar performance. We’re not very sympathetic to the teacher who says I taught good but they learned lousy.
Second, teachers tend to work in relative isolation. Evaluators can sit in on a class and observe, but the very fact of observation is likely to affect the teacher’s performance in one way or another. (A teacher’s students know the most about how he or she operates on a day-to-day basis, but we tend not to trust their evaluations.)
There’s also some irreducible mystery to teaching. We’ve all had teachers who were somehow able to run a quiet and orderly classroom without ever raising their voice or showing the least effort. Other teachers couldn’t control a classroom if you equipped them with a megaphone and a bullwhip. It’s a challenge to reduce that intangible quality to a measurement matrix.
4. Would you want your professional future in the small hands of a bunch of nine-year-olds holding number 2 pencils?
And here are four not-so-great reasons why teachers may not like merit pay:
1. Merit pay discourages collaboration. One of the criticisms of merit pay voiced in the Cap Times article is that such a system would discourage collaboration among teachers. I don’t see why this would be the case. It’s not as if the teachers in each school would all be pitted against each other, with the lowest-ranking voted off the island each week. Teachers should have the same incentive to collaborate to hone their own skills and to be helpful to their colleagues under a merit pay system as they do today. Effective teacher collaboration should lead to enhanced student performance, which is the goal of the enterprise. A sound teacher evaluation system would value and reward effective collaboration.
2. We don’t want teaching to the test. Another criticism of merit pay is that it provides too much incentive for teachers to just “teach to the test.” I have never understood why this is supposed to be such a bad thing. So long as the test that is taught to provides an accurate measure of the materials the students should have mastered, what’s wrong with teaching to the test? It means that students will be studying and learning the materials they we expect them to master.
The concern, I imagine, is that teachers will put undue emphasis on learning the materials that will be on the test, and will short-change the students with respect to other parts of the curriculum. Good teachers won’t do this. Poor teachers fall into that category because they are less able to effectively cover everything that a good teacher does. If this is the case, and the less-good teachers will have to scale down their scope of activities, why not have them focus on teaching the materials that their students are expected to learn?
3. Some kids are smarter than others. A common criticism of attaching significance for a teacher to how well his or her students do on standardized tests is that some students are simply going to score higher on standardized tests than others no matter what the teacher does. It’s unfair to base a teacher’s salary on test results, when so much of the difference in the scores is attributable to the luck of the draw in terms of what particular students are in the classroom.
This is a valid point, but it‘s not a conversation stopper. The way the variability in student abilities is taken into account is by utilizing a value-added method of analysis. The value-added approach takes a longitudinal approach to individual students and tracks how much they learn from year to year. No matter where an individual student starts the year, a good teacher should help that student make at least a year’s worth of progress. An advanced student might still be advanced at the end of a school year, but if he or she made less than a year’s progress in a particular grade his or her teacher likely did not do the world’s greatest job for the student. If a value-added approach has sufficient data it can lead to assessments of teacher effectiveness that control for the particular demographics of the teacher’s classroom.
4. Teachers don’t have that much impact. One somewhat curious criticism that teachers make of merit pay is that, given the stresses in students’ lives, it would be unfair to hold teachers accountable for how much their students learn. The Cap Times quotes MTI’s John Matthews making the point: “When students walk in the door each morning, the teacher doesn’t know whether a child had two parents at home, a single parent or no parents. They don’t know if they get dental care, so they might have a toothache. They don’t know if they had dinner or breakfast, so they might be hungry. It’s hard to concentrate on whether two plus two is four if you’re wondering about where your parents were the night before.” (Richard Rothstein’s book Class and Schools, which has been enthusiastically endorsed by Matthews, develops this argument.)
Teachers who contend that an individual student’s learning is so dependent on factors outside of the school’s control as to make it unfair to base a teacher evaluation system on student performance end up, surprisingly, arguing against the significance of their work. They are saying there is only so much we can do for our students, their capacity to learn may be overwhelmed by other factors in their lives.
It’s an odd thing. Proponents of better evaluation systems justify their position by pointing to the significance of teacher quality in determining how much a student learns. Teachers resistant to the approach respond, in effect, oh, no, we’re not really so important. There is only so much we can do.
In this case, I think the teachers doth protest too much. It’s one thing to argue that our ability to analyze the results of standardized tests on a value-added basis hasn’t advanced to the point where we can fairly rely upon them to judge teacher effectiveness. It’s another to throw up our hands and say some of these kids can’t learn no matter how good the teacher.
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Where do I come down on this? In principle, I’d like to see a merit pay system for teachers. I’d want to base it on a value-added analysis of student performance on some standardized test that is better than the WKCE. I wouldn’t want to make the analysis too refined, but it should take into account significant deviations from the mean, both good and bad. I’d want to take into account other characteristics of teacher quality as well. And I’d want teachers to play a critical role in any group that was charged with coming up with the evaluation method.
But what I want is unlikely to make any difference. Given the strong opposition to the very notion of merit pay, particularly among teacher unions, it’s not going to happen around here anytime soon.