Teacher Merit Pay 2

The “conventional wisdom” problem I outlined in the last post is not the problem in my view. Children are not like cars or hamburgers. Some aspects of our public life, like health care and education, are too critical to our well being to allow for losing schools.

Drum roll. . . I will now concede a few points often communicated by conservative critics of public schools. Teacher unions will generate more good will if they work together with school boards, districts, and administrators to not only make sure all teachers are given due process when evaluated and conceivably terminated, but also to develop more rigorous criteria for continuing employment so that more (1% would be a large increase in some districts) consistently ineffective teachers are let go. Emphasizing due process almost exclusively has proven counter-productive.

Also, thanks to M.A. for turning me on to Atul Gawande, surgeon/genius health-care writer for the New Yorker. In the December 14th issue, in an article titled “Testing, Testing” he makes a very convincing argument that the best way forward in health-care, is for bottom-up, grass-root pilot studies of medical care, insurance, and related innovations.

Ed reformers would be well served to follow suit. Of course there’s a lot of innovative magnet, charter, and other public schools-within-schools, the challenge is scaling up what works in one context to another. But I digress. Even though schools are not car dealerships and restaurants, we need to free schools up to innovate and distinguish themselves one from another so that families can comparison shop. Families that consciously choose a school are far more committed to it.

To paraphrase from Deborah Meier, we need to provide families choices among small, distinctive, public schools.

The trend is the opposite, the pendulum has not only swung towards standardization in assessment, curriculum, and teaching methodologies, but it’s gotten stuck.

The record on charter schools is terribly uneven, some are exceptional, many are not. I’m not enough of an expert to know how to tip that balance, but my guess is greater fiscal and curricular accountability.

Back to “the problem”. Recent commenters, “Mom’s Favorite” and Lance (also a fantasy appellation), are both right. We need to find ways to attract especially strong candidates to the profession. What do I mean by “especially strong”? For starters, solid academic background, caring, and interpersonally skilled. And we want people motivated more by improving their communities than by enriching themselves.

Right now beginning teachers in Washington State make $34,237 and the scale tops out at $64,531 so we have a lot of room to increase pay without altering the tremendous altruism that motivates most teachers.

Until recently, I taught one course a year in an International Studies program that tended to attract especially strong students. Bi and trilingual, strong writers, confident discussants, serious international experience, ambitious, socially aware. The exact type of people I need applying to the teacher certification program I coordinate, but for the bulk of them, $34,237 is insufficient. After three years of law school they can triple it (leaving aside the fact that a lot of lawyers don’t like lawyering).

Stay tuned because the next question is whether merit pay (yes, I’ll get back to it) means dividing up the same $34,237-$64,531 pie differently or whether there are ways to increase the size of the pie, and as the cliche goes, have a rising tide lift all boats.

3 thoughts on “Teacher Merit Pay 2

  1. Ron, I think a big key to progress in both health care and education is transparency. There is no reason why detailed daily lesson plans, meetings and curriculum guides cannot be posted on the internet for parents, students and fellow teachers to view and critique. This would allow a more community based group effort to be made in instruction. Merit pay could be project based, with all concerned groups working on exciting meaningful lesson plans for all to see. It takes a village.

    • Dean,

      All of the health care payment systems tell doctors and hospitals that they either have to provide too much care or withhold care if they care to be around to provide care tomorrow. (Care wasn’t really withheld, but that’s a post for another day.) But, all of the pilot projects identified by Dr. Gawande in health care reform might be on to something: 1) We don’t need to conform to one payment system. The payment system for a patient with a chronic illness like diabetes doesn’t have to be the same as the payment system for an aerobic wonder like Ron. If a pilot project works, use it. 2) “Works” means getting more bang for the buck. That might seem obvious; but, in the 80s and 90s, payment systems for doctors were developed to encourage the number one advocate for the patient to save money (yeah, I know, we had a lot to learn.) Now, the payment systems rely on carrots, and the carrots are things doctors want, which are sometimes money and sometimes not (we’re learning…). More bang for the buck comes from delivering higher quality care, and higher quality care is judged by delivering “evidenced-based care” based on scientific research. Not all treatments are based on evidence. But enough are to get started and some are significant conditions — low-back, diabetes. Consistently provide quality (evidenced-based care) and you get to partake in the carrots.

      There’s not universal agreement on describing and using evidence-based care, but rest assured, every pilot project will rely upon evidence. So, I’ve wonder, Ron, is there anything in education that corresponds with evidence-based care?


      • Yes, as Double S could explain in far more detail, school districts are becoming much more empirical in orientation, using data to improve practice. I like how some districts quickly use data from student assessments to help teams of teachers improve their practice and to identify students that need more help in particular areas. At the same time, I’m somewhat skeptical that teaching and learning will get markedly better through a greater emphasis on data. Then again, most everyone I cycle with uses power and/or heart rate to monitor effort and I’m a “feel” and “perceived rate of exertion” guy so maybe it’s just a quirk of mine. If I get really good at listening to my breathing and my body more generally, and you pour over graphs showing watts, cadence, and heart rate, I think it’s six of one and half a dozen of another. The teaching equivalent is developing “withitness” with regard to classroom life and student learning. I suppose, being relatively skeptical about a data-based science of teaching opens me up to charges of anti-Americanism, anti-intellectualism, and worse. :) I’m willing to risk that in order to be a minority voice asking “What are the limits of data?” Hypothetical, your daughters and my daughters come home with 90% on the WASL or similar type of assessment. From a technical-rational point of view they’re quite competent, can read fluidly, can do word problems, can write coherent essays. But what if they aren’t curious about much at all, aren’t resilient, don’t interact with others very well, and don’t have a social conscience or much empathy for anyone? That’s what I would describe as “winning the school data battle and losing the life war” for lack of a better phrase. Then again, and this relates to Dean’s comment about transparency, I would like more data on my docs’ relative effectiveness in diagnosing and treating illness compared to docs generally. Is that inconsistent? Maybe. I’d like my docs to have good bedside manners, but if it’s that or technical skill and competence, which it often is, I’ll take the later every time. Parents of school-aged children need teachers to be knowledgeable and interpersonally skilled.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s