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Hiow Barack Obama Lost HIS Vote
Merit This

Needed, before merit pay

I guess I should be researching the candidates a little more carefully, because I didn't realize until I read Chuck's post today at the Chief Source that Obama was in favor of merit pay.

(And I want to say before I go any further that I think Chuck is a smart guy, and a great blogger. I don't disagree with him often. I just disagree with him, albeit strongly, on the issue of merit pay.)

Now it turns out that Obama isn't really calling it that--but it seems pretty clear that he's endorsing some sort of pay for performance scheme, although he says it won't be based on test scores. It's a pretty interesting idea, and I will be interested in seeing how he develops the proposal. But let's be clear about one thing: Merit pay is a horrible idea.

I'm going to attempt to address this as fully as I can based on my experience and professional observations, but first, this is a bad idea on a purely philosophical level. Obama is really advocating here a huge new federal role in education, far more intrusive to local and state decision making than has ever been proposed before. Is Obama really suggesting that the federal government get involved in pay structures for local and state systems? I realize it's popular to talk about increasing teacher salaries (at least in some crowds--around here it's not so popular!!) but should the federal government really be in the business of telling districts how to pay their teachers? Based on some of the reactions I've read, many people on the left and right seem to think this is a good thing. To which all I can say is, Wow. So much for local control.

Now, on to the specifics. How would anyone design a merit pay formula? Chuck writes that merit pay would be a combination of evaluations from supervisors, students, parents, and student performance. (And most merit pay proposals are based on some combination of these.) Let's take them one at a time.

Let's see, basing your pay on your boss's evaluation. All right, what if my boss is a Republican, and doesn't like the fact that I drive to work with a Kerry sticker on my car? What if my principal doesn't like the fact that I organized a group of faculty to protest his discipline policies? What if he or she doesn't like my union involvement? In other words, how can we protect teachers from arbitrary decisions by administrators? In the evaluation process, teachers are afforded certain protections based on due process and case law that has grown around the evaluation and dismissal process. But those kinds of protections don't exist for merit pay proposals, and it's incomprehensible to me that we would want to see teachers subject to arbitrary treatment like this. Sure, I hear some of you saying, "hey my boss makes arbitrary decisions about my pay and I just have to live with it." Or, "people in any profession can be treated badly by their bosses." Those things may be true, but that hardly seems like an argument to subject teachers to similar treatment. If bosses in the private sector treat their employees like shit, those employees should organize and fight back! Instead the argument I hear often is that teachers should be treated as badly as worker in other professions. Arent' we supposed to be the pro-labor party?! Not the "treat your employees arbitrarily" party?

Student and parent evaluations. Hey, I have an idea. Why don't we just give raises to the teachers who give everyone A's and don't assign too much homework and have ice cream parties every Friday. Then will we all be happy? Jesus H. Christ. This seems obvious to me, but let me explain it anyway. Teacher and students and their parents don't exactly have a customer/service provider relationship. And the reason is that teachers exist not only to instruct but to JUDGE performance. Now everyone hates Simon Cowell. But let's be honest, who gives the most accurate and meaningful assessments of the singers? Is it Paula Abdul who thinks everyone is great, or Randy Jackson who just says, "hey, that's not your song, dog." Look, sometimes the best teachers are just plain pricks. I had a professor in college, we'll call him Dr. K, that I absolutely wanted to punch in the mouth. Every time he called on me--I would never have dared raise my hand to volunteer--he started yelling and interrupting: But WHY, Dave? What do you mean by that? No, no, what do you mean by that? Don't just look at me answer the question. What does that word mean? But he was one of the best professors I ever had at actually getting me to think. At the same time, there were teachers I had who were all jokes and fun and helped me score well on tests but didn't teach me shit about what was important.

And that raises another point about merit pay: education isn't all about instant results. It wasn't until much later that I realized how profoundly Dr. K influenced my thinking. Above all else he insisted that I be CLEAR. And it was a tremendously valuable gift. But I hated him for it at the time. Merit pay insists that the lessons we learn in school be instantly appreciated, instantly demonstrable. But learning isn't really like that, if any of us will be honest with ourselves about the lessons we had in school (or in life) that really meant the most. We can't always know within the span of a school year whether a teacher has really done his or her job.

Ok, test scores. That's another way to judge teachers. Doesn't merit pay highly incentivize a teacher to work at getting the plum teaching assignments? If I get a full slate of AP courses I am SET!! Now we can get fancy with value added assessments and find out where students are at the beginning of the year and whether I've added to them by the end, so the selection of students in my class doesn't quite matter as much. What matters is whether they did better at the end than at the beginning. A lot of assumptions are built into this approach. 1, that the tests we're giving are worth a shit. And given the current state of affairs, they probably aren't. 2, That the students give a shit about doing well on the test, and therefore pumping up your salary. (In fact, if I hated your guts, I might just be inclined to tank the son of a bitch on purpose.) 3, That the student, in response to my terrific, mindboggling, and downright Socratic instruction, has upheld his or her end of the bargain by working hard, doing homework, not getting pregnant and missing 6 months of school, not getting sick, not getting sick on the day of the test, not getting high on the day of the test, not having his boyfriend or girlfriend break up with him/her the night before the test, eating regular meals, not getting his ass kicked by his dad all year long while the heroic teacher is trying to do his or her job, and not getting bullied all goddamned year by the bitches in the girls restroom right before class to the point of not being able to think about anything but getting home without losing a fistful of hair--Jesus, don't these kids value education?

Sorry about the language, but the more I write the angrier I'm getting.

When did we decide that we just want to quantify everything? Make everything a rating, a ranking, a percentage, a point? Teaching isn't all about numbers and it isn't all about tests. And teaching isn't even about pleasing everyone all the time--in fact, with grade inflation the way it is, there's way too much of that already. The reality is everyone wants schools to be better, and everyone wants schools and teachers to be something other than what they are. But instead of just throwing around proposals that sound good we need to have a long, thorough conversation about exactly what we want out of schools, and that isn't happening. By default, what we're getting is a numbers game, a bunch of meaningless standards, and we're cutting the very heart out of teaching, turning it into a mindless exercise in which we produce kids who can answer a discrete set of pretty unimportant questions. We might as well be preparing students for a really dull quiz show. All merit pay is going to do is pad the paychecks of the ones who play the game right. It's a gimmick, and it's a pretty stupid one at that.

I like Barack Obama. I really do. It's ballsy to go into an NEA convention and talk merit pay. And I like his nerve. But if you want to improve the quality of teaching there are a hundred better ways to do it. Maybe a big federal stipend for National Board Certification. Maybe we need to have more discussion of what teachers know and what they should know. Let's talk about how students are divided up... why do we give the newest teachers the hardest classes? That isn't fair. Let's talk about special education, and gifted, and how to support those students and the teachers that work with them. How can we support the kids that are not safe at home? How can we get them more ready to learn? Maybe we should give teacher tuition reimbursement so they can earn Master's degrees if they don't already have them. Or Ph. D.'s. Let's talk, instead of wages, about reducing the course load teachers have so they can focus more on their instruction and the feedback they give kids. Let's give teachers the resources to build their own websites to support their instruction.

There are other ways besides Merit Pay. Let's keep looking. And if anyone wants to take me on in the comments, have at it. I'm your huckleberry.

(One more thing: there are a few places that have experimented with merit pay for administrators, and I haven't seen any results that are earth-shattering. The reality is that most administrators are already held accountable, mainly by their school communities and by their bosses, and merit pay doesn't really add to that accountability. Most administrators I know resent the implication that they would work harder if they had financial incentives to do so. Most of them, like most teachers, feel like they work pretty hard already.)

(Note: I wrote two pieces similar to this last year called "Why Tenure Matters", which deal with some of these same topics.)

Originally published at Ohdave's Into My Own.

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