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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Obama Calls for Merit Pay for Teachers

Speaking of paying educators what they're worth, President Obama is proposing a raft of education reforms today, including federal support for merit pay for teachers in up to 150 school districts across the country.

No surprise here: Obama has consistently called for merit pay, even after receiving the endorsement of the National Education Association, a Democratic bulwark that staunchly opposes pay based on performance.

I'm still dubious about merit pay. As I've said before, it's a good principle but a practical nightmare. We all have our opinions about who the best teachers are; how do we fairly codify those opinions into a rational pay system? Could we trust a superintendent, a school board, or any other committee or plebiscite to make an honest assessment of a teacher's actual performance that filters out all the usual small-town politics and petty grievances to which teachers are inevitably subject?

Maybe (pure spitballing here) teachers need to work as independent contractors. End contract renewal and tenure. Each March, the school districts open up every teaching position for bidding. Every teacher on staff who wants to come back next year submits a bid proposal, outlining what they've achieved in the classroom in the past year, what they plan to achieve next year, and how much they think they should be paid for that achievement. Anyone else who wants to apply for the job can do the same. The school picks the best bidder (not necessarily the lowest!), then negotiates a one- to three-year contract with the winner outlining the specific benchmarks to be used to determine any merit pay above and beyond the base.

For instance, suppose I submitted a winning bid for speech education services at Howard High School. Perhaps Superintendent Cullen would offer me a two-year contract, base salary $32,000. We could negotiate that I would receive a $1000 bonus for increasing test scores on a speech assessment that we would design over the summer, a $250 bonus for each student I can recruit to compete at more than one speech contest, and a $5000 bonus for coaching a Howard debater to qualify for Nationals. Maybe I'd even agree to have a $2000 raise contingent upon statistically significant improvement in student and parent satisfaction as expressed on year-end evaluations compared with the previous teacher (if we could agree on a fair evaluation instrument).

Does that sound like an awful lot of work just to set a teacher contract? Imagine the administration going through that process for every teacher on staff. But that's the kind of work fair merit pay will take. If you have better ideas, bring 'em to the table!


  1. Really torn here. Will objective criteria ever accurately value the quality of a teacher?

  2. Nope. Merit pay equals popularity pay usually.

  3. A similar problem which is frequently encountered at the collegial level is figuring out which research to fund. After trying many different approaches, the NSF has settled on a peer reviewed approach. You submit your idea, an independent panel of your peers reviews it and ranks it against the other proposals received during that funding cycle. Depending on the amount of government allotted funding for that year, X number out of Y total proposals are funded.

    The key advantage of this system is that the concepts are reviewed by technical experts in the field and there ares at least two degrees of separation between the submitters and reviewers.

    As CAH points out, teaching and its outcomes are very subjective and very hard if not impossible to quantify. Similarly, the value of proposed research is frequently subjective and hard to quantify. Rather than leaving it up to individuals who may not be technical experts (teachers as opposed to admin) or may have existing relationships, I believe a peer review process makes more sense.

    I propose that teachers write short proposals for a new concept that they want to implement/equipment they want to buy similar to a research proposal. The funding would also include release time from teaching at a higher rate of pay to implement these concepts.

    Such a system would translate into:
    1. Motivated teachers now have a forward avenue to enhance themselves, their pay, and their course offerings.
    2. This will double as a pre-screening mechanism because non-motivated teachers will not apply/keep doing the minimum.
    3. Will minimize the subjective nature of the funding allotments.

    There are obviously many details that would need to be worked out for such a system to be functional, but the NSF is the closest analogous entity I know of that funds things that are subjectively valuable.

  4. Do you want teachers to be motivated by money? To stress subjects part of performance measurement? Suck up to evaluators? Sounds too much like a corporate environment.

  5. Trust me, Anon, I'm as uncomfortable as you with basing education on profit (why else would I do the things I do?). But if the merit-pay steam train is a-comin', we need to find a way to minimize the potential damage and come up with a workable, equitable method for determining that pay. Tony's peer review concept is worth looking into. So is involving teachers in negotiating their own benchmarks. Objective standards are tough, but maybe we can find subjective standards that will be good enough for labor and management to agree on.

  6. I've given this some more thought and have decided that the real problem is standardization. While standardized tests are not ideal, averaged across 30 students in a class they do give a quantifiable metric of performance. Let's have a nationally standardized test for each class at each grade level that all students take. I vaguely remember such tests that were given every few years that covered all of the subjects.

    Such tests would have some serious advantages:

    1. Teaching methodologies could be directly compared to one another.
    2. Teaching materials could also be directly compared.
    3. Identical teaching materials/methodologies could then be normalized out and compared to external factors.
    4. Student learning profiles could be built up in a standardized format.

    While there isn't a "best" teaching method or material, I do think there are some that are far better than others. These outcomes would allow for systematic improvement and refinement over time rather than the fairly random process that we have today.

    The end goal of education should be to provide a student with a strong knowledge base and give the student the skills to rapidly assimilate and apply new knowledge. Standardized tests could give some degree of measure of both goals. Additionally, I think this approach could help to level the playing field for students as they graduate by leveling the knowledge playing field.

  7. FYI: I like this Read More so we can read the comments right away. Don't take it personal: I sometimes like the comments nearly as much as the story.

  8. Tony, would you care to propose a model for a national standardized test for speech communication? I would recommend each student execute three speech activities: an 8-10 minute speech, a 15-minute mock job interview, and participation in a mock council meeting using parliamentary procedure, all evaluated by an independent three-judge panel. Conducting this practical examination for 80-some MHS juniors would require about 52 hours. And then we still have a dozen other subjects to evaluate.

    Can we conduct authentic, meaningful standardized examinations of learning in every subject?

  9. CAH:

    Point taken. It seems reasonable that some areas may be too onerous or subjective to evaluate directly using a standardized test. In such cases, we may be limited to evaluating these areas indirectly.

    Let's arbitrarily assume that the goal of a Speech I class is to provide students with the ability to put together a meaningful oratory on a topic and then to present it. Using a traditional standardized test, we certainly couldn't evaluate the student's ability to give the speech. However, I do think that the critical thinking skills of evaluating a topic and then constructing an oratory on the topic could be tested to a limited extent. It seems reasonable that these skills could then be quantified.

    I am just as concerned as you that implementing such tests would limit the scope of what is taught in a class (teach to the test...). However, we currently do not have any standard for what should be assimilated beyond the subjective criteria employed by the teacher.

    Further, I would posit that the superior teachers (deserve better pay) are imparting all of the skills that would be tested already in addition to other areas. These teachers would not have a motive to teach only to the test. Conversely, it's the poor teachers that would change their teaching methodology. These teachers are most likely already providing an inferior education if any at all and would better serve their students if they chose only to teach to specified outcomes.


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