Thursday, July 9, 2009

Merit Pay for Teachers

At this year's NEA RA in San Diego, merit pay was a hot topic, and President Obama is a proponent. Here are some ideas to think about:

There are basically three types of teacher compensation systems: the uniform salary schedule (such as the single salary schedule we are familiar with); performance-based systems, also known as behavior-based systems (based in part on observable and demonstrated skills on specific pedagogical techniques); and, outcomes-based systems, also known as pay for performance or merit pay (based on student performance).

Merit pay can be traced back to 1862 in England to the “payment for results” system which was based on student outcomes. It was not without controversy. A teacher at the time wrote “when one of my backyard boys died of bronchitis a few weeks back I felt a measure of relief; for his death would make one failure less.”

Merit/performance pay is a conservative idea which was re-introduced in the modern era in 1983 by Ronald Regan who pushed the idea of merit pay for civil servants. Under the adage that everything old is new again, merit pay is being resurrected by conservatives who are completely out of new ideas.

Contrary to the popular rhetoric of those touting it for the public sector because of its success in the private sector, pay tied directly to explicit measures of output is surprisingly rare in the private sector. According to the National Compensation Survey, only 6 percent of private sector workers are awarded regular output-based payments—and that practice is declining/fading.

Promoters of merit/performance pay for teachers also seem oblivious, ignorant or are willfully ignoring: the extensive literature in economics and management theory against it; the documentation of inevitable corruption associated with it; or the perverse consequences such systems have produced, when reliance on quantitative indicators is relied upon at the expense of qualitative indicators. Nowadays, the business management literature is filled with warnings about incentives that rely heavily on quantitative (student test scores) rather then qualitative (degrees, certification, evaluations, etc.) measures.

Economists, sociologists and management theorists generally caution against accountability systems that rely exclusively, or even primarily, on numerical outcome measures. Management guru, Edward Demming, wrote in his book “Out of Crisis” (on p. 102):

“The idea of merit rating is alluring. The sound of the words captivates the imagination: pay for what you get; get what you pay for; motivate people to do their best, for their own good. The effect is exactly the opposite of what the words promise. Everyone propels himself forward, or tries to, for his own good, on his own life preserver. The organization is the loser. Merit rating rewards people that do well in the system. It does not reward attempts to improve the system. . . . moreover, merit rating is meaningless as a predictor of performance . . .”

Most management theorists conclude that public employees (including teachers) are relatively more motivated by a belief in the goals of the organization while private employees are relatively more motivated by financial rewards.

The General Social Survey found that public sector employees are more likely to respond that a job that is “helpful to society” is very important while private sector employees are more likely to respond that pay, promotion, opportunity and security is very important to them.

Modern professional work (such as teaching) is complex, multi-faceted and not easily summarized by simple quantitative measures. Merit/performance pay systems cannot measure that complexity but instead create concerns of validity, reliability and freedom from bias as to how they are administered.

Research, available through the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, shows no evidence of increased student achievement resulting from merit/performance pay programs. David Berliner’s research on the unintended consequences of high-stakes testing, commissioned by the Center, showed many negative consequences of merit/performance pay programs.

The Michigan experience:

Grand Blanc – system is based on a whole school building assessment on a number of indicators such as the Baldrige Assessment—not just a single test score. If the building does well, every employee gets a 1.5 percent bonus.

Clio – system is based on a whole school building assessment (takes into account things like attendance at football games or after school activities). It has caused problems because if one person doesn’t participate the whole staff is punished.

Oscoda – system is based on a district-wide assessment based on MEAP scores. If the district scores well on the MEAP, each of the teachers would receive approximately $250 at the end of the year.

Au Gres – system, in place since the 1990s, is based on a district-wide assessment based on MEAP scores. Teachers never received any money because students never scored high enough until the past couple of years…when the district realized they could not afford what they had promised and had to renegotiate a lower “bonus.”

Special thanks to MEA Executive Director Lu Battaglieri