Carrots Not Sticks

Business true believers assume workers are motivated exclusively by economic incentives. Consequently, they advocate paying teachers based upon how their students do on standardized test scores. But the rub of course is that the total “salary compensation pie” doesn’t increase, so instead of three teachers making 40k, one will make 30, one 40, and one 50.

I’ve already described the problems with this approach here and here.

An alternative is to get foundations and wealthy philanthropists to contribute to “teacher bonus endowments” in every district in the country. These endowments could enable school community committees to identify and award exceptional educators. Bonuses could be 1k, 10k, or as in this story from today’s LA Times, 25k.

Teacher Merit Pay 3

Washington’s gov has had meetings with the state’s top ed officials to see if they can tweak state policy so that they might qualify for a couple of hundred million of the Obama admin’s “Race to the Top” funds. Among other things, they’re talking about instituting a teacher merit pay plan to gain Washington’s favor.

Here’s the context of those discussions. The following cuts have been proposed in the gov’s supplemental budget, which deals with an anticipated $2.6b shortfall:

• cut preschool for 3 year-olds in low-income areas ($10.5m)

• increase class size in K-4 ($110.6m)

• suspend the money the state gives to districts that can’t raise much through property taxes ($142.9m)

• eliminate gifted ed ($7.4m)

• suspend all day Kindergarten for students in schools with the highest poverty levels ($33.6m)

Given this context, I worry any merit based pay system will involve slicing the existing $34,237-$64,531 pie differently.

For example, take ten first year teachers salaries, throw them in a pot totaling $340,237. Establish the rules of the game.

Say we end up with three winners who see a 15% pay boost, three losers who lose 15%, and four status quoers. So now the salary range is $29,101-$39,373.

Does anyone believe border-line poverty (for a family) is a great motivator?

If I was a unionized teacher, I would never sign on to a “slice the existing pie differently” plan.

If states want to see stronger candidates enter the profession, retain the best teachers, and revitalize the profession, they have to make public schooling an even higher priority and find ways to pay bonuses to teams of teachers or entire schools for improved attendance (teacher absenteeism is a serious problem in places), improved student attendance and achievement, and for working for half the summer on curriculum planning and related professional development activities.

Teacher Merit Pay 1

First things first, what’s the problem we’re trying to fix? Arne Duncan, as a high-profile representative of conventional wisdom, would probably answer this way. “The problem is motivating teachers to work harder so that we can close the achievement gap between more and less wealthy students, improve graduation rates, and hold off our traditional economic rivals, Japan and Germany, and our emerging ones, India and China.”

So here are the assumptions: 1) teachers don’t work hard; 2) because teachers don’t work hard, we have a pernicious achievement gap; 3) schools exist to help us maintain our relative advantage in the global economic race.

Conventional wisdom suggests teachers don’t work hard because their pay is predetermined based upon their educational credentials and years of service. That combined with tenure translates into educational malaise. This is a deeply held view by many Americans who view business model principles as immutable.

Business model peeps reason schools are like car dealerships and fast food restaurants. There’s no point being sentimental about shuttered dealerships and restaurants because they are a natural byproduct of intense free market competition. Keep your consumer eyes on the prize, a wide choice of affordable, high quality cars/food.

If unfettered competition is the economic magic bullet, no reason it can’t be the educational one too. Schools in a given locale don’t fear one another enough nor do teachers within individual schools. The proliferation of student test scores enable us to keep score between schools and teachers within individual schools.

Before I proceed, is that the problem merit-based teacher pay is supposed to fix?