Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Merit pay

Merit pay has been receiving a lot of attention recently, and a lot of it has drifted my way. The idea is to incentivize teacher improvement by paying teachers extra for bigger increases in student achievement. I've always been skeptical of it, as a good soldier of the MEA, and because it's always been suggested by people whose interests I believe run counter to those of public education in general, and public education teachers specifically. But there's so much talk about it, I figured a cool, collected, reasoned consideration of it was just about due.

First, we start with the Union's position (to be accurate, these links are from the MEA PAC, but they're representative of ont only the Union's position, but that of other unions):

The MEA on the 2008 election
The MEA on merit pay

It's not surprising that the MEA would be against it. First, if their objective is to be the rising tide that lifts all ships , or the guardian of all teachers and not just the best and the brightest, then any way of singling some teachers out for added benefits while subjecting other teachers to (probably) disciplinary measures would run counter to their goals. Second, the power of collective bargaining is inevitably undercut when compensation is given on an individual basis. The author of the first article points out a third problem: where it's been tried in the past, merit pay solutions are underfunded. That's not surprising, since failing to increase teacher salaries is one tried-and-true method of decreasing expenditures. As politically difficult as it may be to convince the union to go along with salary cuts, it's logistically easier than, say, replacing all the windows in school with more energy-efficient versions. (Less up-front costs, too.) In addition, if the merit pay is thought of as "extra" or "bonus" (and I have no reason to think that administrations feel this way, except that the payments are often called "extra" or "bonus" pay), then it would be very easy for a cash-strapped superintendent to say, "No MEAP bonuses this year, chaps, very sorry, have a half-holiday instead, except I can't give you that, either." (For the record, my superintendent isn't a London headmaster.)

However, given the vehement opposition that unions normally give merit pay, expressing disbelief that administrations can or would consistently come through with the cash is a surprisingly mild protest. Put another way, on a prioritized list of problems with merit pay, how to pay for the bonuses would be problem #57. I'm a little surprised to see that someone in a union has gotten past the first 56 problems to seriously contemplate that one.

And now, for something completely different:

The Mackinac Center's take on merit pay

"Although it is true that teachers do more than merely teach students how to read, write and do arithmetic, students should be able to demonstrate the academic progress they make during the 180-day school year on standardized tests." This sentence deserves to be surgically dissected, have each of the bits examined closely under a microscope, and thoroughly analyzed. And then whatever's left should be poked with a stick and quietly incinerated. It sums up every issue I have with the Mackinac Center's education policy.

First: "Although it is true that teachers do more than merely teach students how to read, write and do arithmetic..." Thanks for the recognition! I can't tell if it's just in my head, but that's awfully condescending. I guess it beats a poke in the eye, though. But it feels like a poke in the eye. Even granted the general tone of recognition that this phrase tries to adopt, it seems to stick in the writer's craw to have to confess that teachers are anything but computer-programming computers. "...students should be able to demonstrate..." for a given value of "demonstrate," I assume. "...the academic progress they make in the 180-day school year..." Someday, I'll talk about the 180-day school year. In brief: I would like teacher base salaries to increase 25% and have a 225-day (or longer) school year; that would just about cover the testing requirements. I assume that the Mackinac center would like the school year to be longer, and would like teachers to do it for free. "...on standardized tests." If I trusted standardized tests, I might feel this statement held more weight. I do agree that some sort of relationship between instruction and a solidly-designed standardized test should be evident. But I don't think that standardized tests should be the objective, the way the writer suggests.

My principal receives an e-mail called "Before the Bell," which is a news summary from the NAESP. He forwards me these when they contain something he thinks I'll be interested in, or if they have something pertinent to a conversation we've had recently. The following are all articles brought to my attention through that source:


As someone who works for a school that hasn't been able to afford annual raises (as opposed to seniority step raises) in years, a 2.5% raise down from 5% seems like a fair deal. But in real life, annual raises of 4 - 5% doesn't seem like it should be out of bounds. Even so, I don't like the concept that educators' salaries can and should be cut for the good of the students. Inflation affects all; it's not necessarily true that what's good for teachers is good for students, but I think it's fair to say that what's bad for teachers is bad for students.


This link highlights some of the concerns that teachers feel, and that all right-thinking folk should have in mind. I don't know that we have the information-gathering systems at the micro-classroom level to accurately determine who's effective and who's not. And truly, I don't know if we ever will. Classrooms simply seem like too small a sample size.


This article suggests some of the benefits to teachers. It's pre-election, so it has a campaign touch at the end. A pretty positive take on the thing.

My conclusion is this: If we do this right (and we won't), if the money is there (and even if it is there now, it won't be soon), we still wouldn't know enough, COULDN'T know enough to apply this fairly. What bonus, for instance, would a Latin teacher receive when her students scored above the schoolwide average on the English section of the ACT? Even if we kick it up a step and work it to a school level--something that might encourage educators to work together, and take away the "competitive" argument--there's still no way to pay out in a way that recognizes the many elements of improving test scores. I think I'm broadly in favor, on the basis that teachers should be paid more, and if increased accountability is the price, then that can probably be a good thing, too. But the wide value of accountablility by its very nature makes determining who would get paid an almost-arbitrary matter. So long as a school district is willing to take that responsibility, then it might want to try it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Competing demands

There is social pressure at my school for two mutually exclusive, yet very important, elements in lesson plans: 1.) a classroom experience which places a premium on teacher/student relationships and in-class experience, and 2.) portability of lessons, so students can re-learn standards and make up assessments in places other than the classroom.

The first is important for several reasons. One reason is sort of a justification for the continued existence of brick-and-mortar schools: if a student could take what they're doing in your classroom and do it anywhere, then why does s/he need to go to school? The converse seems like it would be a good argument against brick-and-mortar schools: Students shouldn't have to go to public schools; anything they can learn there, they can learn with their iPods and computers at home. Put another way, I don't have to stay here to do worksheets, I can do worksheets at the beach! (I can't cite a source where I've seen this argument. But it doesn't seem like the sort of thing I'd come up with on my own. I suspect the Mackinac Center, but then I blame them for everything*.) To be clear, I'm very pro-brick-and-mortar-school, and I'm very pro-technology-in-education. In addition, I think it's just a sign of respect towards the students that you're going to use their time efficiently.

Another reason for good, high-quality experiences in the classroom is that a much higher-quality educational experience can occur in the classroom. We teachers are supposed to be experts in edcuation, by which I mean we can do better than pass out "match-the-word-to-the-picture-it-describes" worksheets, sit back, and watch the "learning" occur. With the time we have our students in class--with all its flaws, with all the interruptions, with all the classroom management difficulties and personality-conflict issues and apparent student apathy, the experience we can give to students while they're in our presence is better in every way than the one they can get without us--it should be broader, wider, and deeper than the experience they get by bouncing YouTube videos back and forth to each other. I'm not downing on technology, of course. But technology is most effective (educationally speaking) when it's coordinated with other technology and real life (not controlled, coordinated) by an intelligent, aware adult with an eye on long-term learning objectives. And even then, there's a lot that can't be learned on the computer outside of the classroom.

On the other side, a certain amount of portability in lessons is necessary. Students are absent; they have to go to the office; you go to a conference and leave a substitute who almost certainly knows nothing about your subject (regardless of what your subject is); you have to work lessons around Picture Day and the Halloween Costume Parade. Occasionally, they spend time in in-school suspension. During these times, a packet of papers that students can take with them and interact with the lesson in a less real-time way becomes much more attractive, to teacher and student. I get frustrated when I spend a long, productive day full of kinesthetic learning activities that students seem to enjoy, and the next day another student comes up and says, "What did we do yesterday? My mom needed help frosting cupcakes." (Or I was on my death-bed with strep throat. Whatever.) It seems really lame to say, "Remember the vocab sheet I gave you on Tuesday? That's what we did." ¿Meh?

Also, if a student doesn't understand a lesson the first time you teach it, it's not going to do a whole lot of good to simply repeat the way you did it. So you need to have a backup plan. So twice, I've now come up with a reason for having more than one lesson plan--one, full of classroom-intense, socially- and emotionally-rich lesson plans, another that has students teaching themselves your material somehow. *Sigh* The good news is that most textbook companies already have the second lessons covered.

*This is tongue-in-cheek. I'm willing to listen to any idea that supports education that the Mackinac Center for Public Policy comes up with. As soon as they have one, I'm sure someone will let me know.