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.

Why Merit-based Teacher Pay Is Not A Good Idea

There are several reasons, but the most important coincidentally relates to health care reform. In a recent New Yorker article Obama is supposed to have read very closely (The Cost Conundrum, June 1, 2009) Atul Gawande examines why health care providers vary so much in terms of cost and quality and why cost and quality often aren’t related. Late in the article Gawande turns to the Mayo Clinic as a model of topflight efficiency and quality.

“It’s not easy,” he (a Mayo administrator) said. But decades ago Mayo recognized that the first thing it needed to do was eliminate the financial barriers. It pooled all the money the doctors and the hospital system received and began paying everyone a salary, so that the doctors’ goal in patient care couldn’t be increasing their income. Mayo promoted leaders who focussed first on what was best for patients, and then on how to make this financially possible. No one there actually intends to do fewer expensive scans and procedures than is done elsewhere in the country. The aim is to raise quality and to help doctors and other staff members work as a team. But, almost by happenstance, the result has been lower costs. “When doctors put their heads together in a room, when they share expertise, you get more thinking and less testing,” Cortese told me.”

Here’s the public schooling parallel. “The aim is to raise quality and to help teachers and other staff members work as a team. . . . When teachers put their heads together in a room, when they share expertise, you get improved teaching and learning.”

So Arne, in your vision, will merit-based pay decisions be made on a teacher-by-teacher basis? If salary allocation is a zer0-sum game, and I’m a teacher who is excelling, why would I share my most successful materials, my most effective teaching strategies, my best insights with my colleagues? The answer, of course is, I wouldn’t. And so how will teachers who have beat a permanent retreat to their respective classrooms, create improved academic achievement?

The runner up problem is hypocrisy. Arne, is your salary merit-based? What about Obama’s? The members of Congress? District superintendents? Principals? What about the CEO’s who have seen their salaries and pensions skyrocket at the same time their company stock has fallen? What about the 80-90% of people’s who are not commission-based salespeople? If merit-based pay is so good for the goose, what about the gander?