I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Questions For Merit Pay Supporters

I was listening to the gab station yesterday (the new guys on 101.5 at least let callers finish their sentences), and the subject was merit pay. The folks who love merit pay just don't understand how anyone could be against it: "It's what happens in the 'real world!'"

I teach elementary school - nothing is more "real" than the world I deal with every day: broken homes, children with learning and emotional disabilities, economic struggles... that's as "real" as it gets. But let's put that aside and talk about merit pay. Study after study has shown that it doesn't help student achievement, but that doesn't stop some people from advocating for it. It seems "logical'; it seems "fair."

Until you start asking people how, exactly, it should be set up. Because when you starting asking some questions, merit pay looks quite a bit less appealing:

- Are we going to spend any extra money on merit pay? To me, this is probably the most important question in developing any merit pay scheme. The "reformers" who push for merit pay are the first ones to cry that we simply can't afford to spend any more on our schools (that's crap, but let's not go there right now).

Merit pay cheerleaders often point to other businesses and their practices of rewarding efficiency. That's fine, except a more effective salesperson makes more money for her company; a more effective teacher does not make more money for her school. This is a critical distinction; while teachers are part of the lifeblood of the country's economic engine, their contribution does not redound back to them. Does Bill Gates's Third Grade teacher get paid extra for having nurtured a multi-billionaire?

So more effective teachers can't generate an immediate stream of revenue that can be used to pay them. And we "don't have any more money" (lie) to add to a merit pay system. Logically...

- Aren't we really talking about taking money away from some teachers and giving it to others? I mean, that's what this is all about, right? You want to take away money from "bad" teachers - and even "average" and "good" teachers - and give it to "great" teachers. OK...

- How much money are we talking? One of the problems with the education "reform" debate is that, even though everyone's been to school, very few outside of the profession know how schools are actually run. When I tell laypeople the following, their eyebrows almost always go up:

At my school, a starting teacher with a BA makes about $50K a year. It takes 24 years to get to the "top of the guide" - the highest possible salary you can make as a teacher. If you earn a masters degree, and get another 45 hrs of graduate credit, you will make $96K - almost double.

Now, are we talking about a system where we're going to take away money from the bottom 10% and give it to the top 10%? Because that would mean most likely taking money away from less-experienced teachers (teaching five years or less) and giving it to more experienced ones. And even if we don't: taking $10K away from a teacher who makes $90K isn't nearly as big of a deal as taking $10K away from a teacher who makes $50K.

Or are we going to take away some from everybody - even the merely "good" teachers - and giving it to the "great" teachers? Does that seem "fair" to the people who are doing their jobs and doing them well, but not exceptionally?

And what if we're talking about rewards bigger than 10%? Are we prepared to see that big of a gap in pay between people who are doing the same job?

Now, some would argue that the solution is to just do away with pay scales based on seniority. Well...

-  If merit pay only makes sense without seniority, are you prepared to tell people who've been teachers for 20 years that their pay will be cut by 25% - or more? I'm not talking about "bad" teachers either - I'm talking about those "average" and "good" teachers - just not the very best. After all that time in the system, are we prepared to tell them the rules have changed? What do you think that will do for morale of the entire teaching corps? How pleasant will it be for the "great" teachers at work after this?

- If the goal is to have every teacher be an excellent teacher, won't they eventually ALL have to have merit pay? I mean, if we're worried about what's "fair," shouldn't every kid have an equally great teacher? And that will cost more overall, right?

- How are we going to decide which kids get to have a merit pay teacher? Again, we want to be "fair," right? Are we going to have lotteries? Because Mom and Dad are sure going to be pissed when they find out their little Kindergartner has just a "good" teacher, and not a "great" one.

(How will they know? Salaries for teachers are published on databases everywhere. Another great perk of the job...)

- Who or what decides which teachers get how much merit pay? Do you think all principals are fair? Do you think using standardized test results is fair (it's not)? Are you happy to have such a strong incentive for teachers to concentrate only on the tests? How will principals assign children to classrooms if merit pay becomes a factor; will it be in the interests of the students, or for the "fairness" of the teachers? What about those teachers who teach subjects where they DON'T use standardized tests? How will we decide the art teacher is "great" while the music teacher is just "good."

Despite all of these problems, I know some people will still insist that merit pay is critically important, because "everyone else" is subject to some sort of merit pay. But, see, here's the thing...

Unless you work on commission, when you get significantly more money on your job, it's because you've been promoted. And there is no next level for a teacher other than principal. Not everybody can or should be a principal; in fact, I'd argue, a great Third Grade teacher should stay with her students, teaching them, rather than dealing with the administrative issues a principal spends most of her time with.

Now, a good case can be made that we need another level of teacher: a master teacher, who can oversee curriculum and supervise colleagues. But that's not what we're talking about with merit pay: we're talking about different pay for people to do the same job. Significantly differing pay should come with significantly differing job responsibilities.

"But we don't have that now!" says the corporate reformer. "The senior teachers make more!" Yes, but everyone is on the same pay scale. Everyone gets to earn their reward if they stay in the profession. Which, if you think about it, saves schools money, because they get to pay new teachers less.

This has nothing to do, by the way, with punishing "bad" teachers. Because we shouldn't cut their pay; we should get rid of them. There should be a streamlined system of tenure review subject to out-of-district adjudication to dismiss poor teachers (assuming, of course, there are better teachers ready to take their place - are you sure that there are after the last two years of pounding teachers into the ground?). Unions are for this, by the way, although it's really not that necessary, considering 40% of teachers never earn tenure in the first place.

What we're really talking about with merit pay is radically restructuring teacher compensation to make it less like the real world: wide variations in pay without wide variations in responsibilities. All for no proven effect. It makes no sense.

And, when you think about it, it's not "fair."


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your blog. My city just switched to merit pay, and, as a new teacher, I appreciate it. My system is broken and a lot of teachers don't do much. The merit pay system recognizes teachers who go above and beyond and allows them to move up the pay scale faster. People not going above and beyond continue to make more money, just at a slower rate. The fact that I can bust my butt and get paid more is something that is exciting and motivating to me. But when I think about the ability to sustain it, the ability to make it widespread, I see a lot of faults.
The question then becomes how do we motivate teachers in failing school systems to do their jobs? Again, thanks for your blog!

California Teacher said...

Anon @ 2:38 writes: "The question then becomes how do we motivate teachers in failing school systems to do their jobs?"

You are making a blanket assumption that teachers at so-called "failing schools" are not doing their jobs, which I find troubling.

Be that as it may, I am curious how "going above and beyond" is defined in your system, and what specifically you are doing to earn your merit pay. In other words, what do you mean by "busting your butt"? I am also wondering at what grade level you teach.

As for merit pay generally, my worry is that teachers will be subject to a much lower "base pay", thus earning the difference through "merit", which will be measured by test scores, and will resemble a type of commission. This way, the overall pay will be the same as it is now, but divided into the "base", and the "merit" parts.

Anonymous said...

You make a lot of excellent points. Love your blog.

Lisa said...

Duke, as usual you hit the nail on the head--and squarely. Having spent over 16 years working in the "real" world, i.e. the private sector/corporate America, before returning to my first and beloved profession (teaching), I was hit with culture shock. At first I found it a bit dismaying, and then just "weird" that a 22 year old "kid" was doing exactly the same job I was doing. Maybe not quite as well (hehe), but the same job with the same responsibilities and expectations. And I, with over 20 years more professional, teaching/training, business, and life experience, was only making about $7,000 more (that was the "dismaying" part, since my 16 years in corporate America only earned me one additional step on the pay scale).

I could not think of ANY job in the private sector in which someone with over 20 years more experience and a graduate degree or two would be doing the SAME job as a 22 year old with no experience. None. Nor could I think of any private sector career in which one would be doing the same thing in the same job for 30 years, except for professionals, such as doctors and perhaps lawyers.

In corporations, if those doing the same job with the same responsibilities are paid differently, it's usually illegal, and often (correctly) attacked as "gender inequity." As you pointed out, except for the fat cats at the top who get million dollar bonuses or those on commission, the vast majority of private sector workers don't get "merit pay"--they get corporate profit sharing if the business did well that year (based on their positions) or promotions if they do well individually and there's room in the budget.

Teaching is an entirely different model, a different paradigm, even. There is no "career path;" you spend your last year doing what you did your first (only better). It attracts those who find personal and professional satisfaction outside the monetary realm.

Given the nature of the profession, and the individuals it attracts, logic dictates that merit pay is not a motivator. Period.

Christie himself declared this in his address at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on April 29, 2011:
"I don’t think any teacher goes into teaching to get rich. They go into teaching mostly I believe because of the psychic value of being able to share your knowledge with children and watching those children learn and respond to you." He used this characterization to defend merit pay and counter the criticism that teachers wouldn't continue to collaborate in a system that uses merit pay.

Obviously, internal consistency and logic are not his strong points. I can't imagine how he passed his LSATs or wrote cohesive briefs.

Duke said...

Anon 1 - I actually think your system might be cool. If it preserves the pay scales, so vets aren't screwed, and it incentivizes younger teachers to stay in the profession, it may have some merit.

The teachers in failing systems are failing because:

1) The kids are trying to overcome near impossible odds

2) No one is recognizing or respecting how hard it is for those teachers to teach kids trying to overcome near impossible odds.

The solution? For a start, stop imposing "solutions" on teachers that disrespect them. Get serious about poverty, racism, health care. Tax the wealthy to provide enough resources. Give poor neighborhoods control of their own schools. Make teaching proud profession so the kids who succeed want more than anything to come back and change the culture of their neighborhoods.

Just a start...

Duke said...

Lisa, great stuff. I am stealing shamelessly from you - see above.

Duke said...

CA Teacher, you are exactly right - this is about lower base pay. You guys in CA know that better than anyone. Years of Prop 13 are coming home to roost.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1 here - Thank you for pushing back at me California teacher. I believe respectful, insightful disagreements will be what moves us all and helps create the reforms needed.

I teach 10th and 12th grade English in Baltimore City. At my school, it is not uncommon to see a teacher write notes on the boards, have students copy them, and give them open notebook tests. It is not uncommon for a student to grow lazy because they have come to believe that this is what they are capable of and this is what they deserve.

Merit pay is based on a number of things here. You can earn Achievement Units by taking credits, attending PDs and Workshops, offering tutoring, working on committees, finding ways to engage the community. These things may seem simple. They are the things of good teachers. Unfortunately, all too often we see the same people doing these things. All second and third year teachers ready to quit because they are tired of fighting what feels like a losing battle.

Please forgive my blanketed statement: there are teachers who have been in the system for 30 years and who still do amazing things. I hope to be this kind of veteran. I hope someone reminds me of my responsibilities if I do not, and urges me to quit my job when I have quit fulfilling the responsibilities of my job.

I am truly enjoying your blog, these comments, and hope that we can continue to expand our understandings through these and other conversations.