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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Merit Pay? Start at the Top

Sometimes my mind wanders....

Independent candidate for District 8 House Jason Bjorklund supports merit pay for teachers. I've mentioned previously that measuring teacher performance is tricky; I'll need to ask Bjorklund at the first candidate forum just what specific metrics he'd use to determine which math teacher gets a bonus.

But it occurs to me as odd that merit pay comes up for teachers but not for any other public servants. Why would we focus so much attention on making teachers prove their worthwhen there are so many bigger fish to fry on the public payroll?

If we're going to talk merit pay, let's start at the top. Let's experiment with the most highly paid, most powerful public employees first and work our way down.

In the education system, for instance, let's start with merit pay for our university presidents. Enrollment up at DSU? Good for you, Dr. Knowlton! $5000 bonus. Dip in retention at SDSU? Oh, sorry, Dr. Chicoine: that's $5000 off your salary (though he can make that up by attending one Monsanto board meeting). If merit pay works with our university presidents, we can phase merit pay in further down the ladder: add our top VPs and administrators one year, maybe deans and department chairs the next, rank-and-file professors and instructors after that.

Same in the K-12 system. Don't start with the teachers: start with the superintendents and principals. Or maybe go bigger: since the K-12 system is the constitutional responsibility of state government, apply merit pay first to the people at the top of the power pyramid: the governor and the secretary of education. If schools across the state see their ACT scores go down, nick Governor Rounds's and Secretary Oster's pay $1000 each.

We could even apply this principle at the local government level. Take Lake County. Dwaine Chapel, executive director of the Lake Area Improvement Corporation, makes over $100,000 a year, more I think that any public official, elected or otherwise, in our county. Chapel will tell you the LAIC is quasi-public-private, but his salary is paid for essentially by tax dollars. Why don't we test out merit pay on his position first? Every month that unemployment goes up, chop that paycheck by $1000. For every new business that opens its doors, $1000 bonus.

If we see merit pay produce results for the LAIC, then we can try it at other levels of local government:
  • Give city engineer Chad Comes a bonus for the year if there are fewer water main breaks and sewer backups.
  • Give states attorney Ken Meyer a bonus for a higher successful prosecution rate.
  • Give city finance officer Jeff Heinemeyer a bonus for higher satisfaction ratings in the next Citizen Survey.
With so many higher-paid public servants with enormous responsibilities in our state, it strikes me as odd that we focus so much attention on merit pay for the folks at the lower end of that public pay scale. If we really want to test merit pay, let's start by demanding results from the folks at the top.


  1. Michael Black9/05/2010 7:57 AM

    Higher pay does not always = better results. You would have us increase the disparity in pay between those at the top and the ones who do the most work. WHatever happened to doing your job to the best of your abilities regardless of the pay?

  2. Cory, I agree with you halfway. You make a good point that any "merit pay" should begin with those at the top. But the random numbers you pick have absolutely no basis in rationality!

    If enrollment goes up at DSU, how do we know that's worth $5000 of taxpayer money? How do we know that a dip in ACT scores warrants a $1000 drop in salary? Why not $2000? $5000? $125000? How do we know how much of a bonus city engineer Chad is due?

    The only way of getting "merit pay" that is at all rational is through privatization. The market would give you exactly what you want: the profit-and-loss system is merit pay starting with those on the top: the owners. If they make wise decisions and turn a profit, they reap the rewards. If they are foolish, they meet with losses.

    I just can't understand how you could support the sort of merit pay that you describe, yet completely ignore the solution staring you in the face that would function precisely the same way, but far more rationally.

  3. How about pay teachers by the hour?

  4. Michael, I don't think anything has happened to that virtue among our low-paid teachers.

    Richard, my numbers are indeed arbitrary. I welcome the politicians to calculate appropriate bonuses for appropriate metrics... which is exactly the problem with any merit pay scheme. I'm not advocating merit pay here; I'm challenging those who advocate it to show me how they'd do it... and apply it to the people at the top of the pyramid first. (And I've seen the market fail too often to sustain the blind faith I used to have in it.)

    Mark: clock me in!

  5. Cory,
    I see. Do you think calculating appropriate metrics for merit pay is even possible?

    Have you seen the government fail too often to remove blind faith in it as well?

  6. I once thought merit pay was an answer. As a collective bargaining negotiator, I endorsed it. As director of the Dakota Writing Project, I helped formulate a plan for implementation.

    That latter instance was the revelation. We had a school that was shaping up as a model for improving student writing, and it was largely because of teachers applying ideas and initiatives they learned about at our institutes. The district thought it should find a way to acknowledge and reward the teachers who were making this happen, so we worked out a merit pay system. It backfired. The minute teachers were put into competition for pay (and it wasn't much), they stopped the interaction and cooperation that made the advances in student writing possible, and focused more on how their efforts would work to personal advantage to obtain that small increment of money. What gains the school had made in improving student performance were soon lost.

    The Writing Project had a team of evaluators from the University of Michigan who were assessing the program in this school. They made the point that we had borrowed the wrong model. Rather than devise an incentive that the would encourage and recognized teachers for working together, we had incorporated a competition for who could claim the most results. We used a business model. And as the evaluators said, the more you run an educational program like a business, the more it fails, because the focus is on managing employees, not producing learning in students.

    The merit pay applied to my faculty colleagues was equally disastrous. It fractured the faculty in ways that to revisions in programs that had grave consequences for academic quality.

    The business model is irrelevant to the business of education. Real academic accomplishment does not create obedient, docile employees, which is what most education efforts are geared to.

  7. Fascinating example, David: a very strong argument for why the business/market model does not apply in the realm of education.

    Richard, indeed, I have great doubts that calculating appropriate metrics of merit pay is possible. Even in the limited world of debate, the area of education I might feel most qualified to evaluate, I don't know how I'd go about deciding how to give merit pay to coaches. What criteria indicate Kerry Konda deserves a bonus: number of debaters with winning records? Number of debaters who qualify for Nationals? Number of debaters who win State trophies? Number of debaters participating and total NFL points earned?

    I think it's easier and more just to say that every person taking on the challenge of coaching debate deserves a decent wage. Instead of monkeying around trying to figure out performance bonuses, why not just say, "Do the job well, and we'll rehire you next year. Do the job poorly, and we dump you and hire someone else"?

  8. Cory and David,
    David's story is NOT an example of any market model failing. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the market is the system of profit and loss, an aspect completely absent from this sort of "merit pay". Good or bad, parents are coerced through property taxes into paying, and students are coerced into attending. THAT is the problem, not David's notion that somehow the "business model is irrelevant to the business of education."

    David is wrong. The focus of business not "managing employees." Business is about serving customers. You can be the best manager in the world, but if you have no customers, you will have no business.

    I think that teacher pay should be determined by how valuable their services are to students and their parents. Privatize the system entirely, and, as in every private industry teachers will tend to be paid according to their MRP--how much they contribute to the revenue of the school by helping to produce the successful students necessary for giving the school a good reputation.

    This system wouldn't be perfect. As you point out, it is difficult to determine criteria to judge the effectiveness of say, a debate coach. But at least a market system rewards those administrators who are better at making judgments that correspond to consumer desires, and punished those that don't through profits and loss.

  9. Twitch: Is the customer the District or the students.

  10. Yikes: If the customer is students/parents, then under Richard's totally private system, families making less than $30K lose all access to the best teachers.


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