-Billy Bob Thornton in Bandits
There are millions of bad ideas in the world, ranging from the ice-tray-style architecture of the Titanic to the commercial release of blue ketchup. But only a few of bad ideas--such as Newt Gingrich--have made me take to my blog in shock and indignation to say: "what are we thinking?"
Today, for no particular reason, I want to add merit pay for teachers to my list of potential disasters.
In this case, I can actually understand why the bad idea sounds good to so many people. Unless you are currently self- or un-employed and were home-schooled by a single parent who never took you to church, you know from experience that some teachers are better than others. And odds are you also know from experience that some of those less-better "others" are, truth be told, incredibly, epically bad.
I can understand why it would bother you if your hypothetical second grade teacher, who has held off retirement so she can make yet another generation completely math-phobic, gets paid more than your daughter's second grade teacher, who sells her plasma to buy extra craft supplies so she can nurture her twenty-eight students' underfunded artistic sides. I get it: you know now where babies come from, and you've forgotten why the sky is blue so many times you no longer care, but you still wish you could solve the mystery of how to reward good teachers--and punish bad ones.
And if we were talking about politicians, pimps, or other sales professionals, I agree that the answer would be easy. Money! Just put a big jar of it in the principal's office. Bring the teachers in each morning and let them salivate over it a while. Then, when the bell rings, send 'em into the classrooms and tell them to knock those kids out! (Only not, you know, literally.)
To put the principle in analogy form for use in standardized testing:
A warm rock / is to / a reptileLook, even an NBA player will put out a little extra effort for the cash bonus that comes with a playoff game--and NBA players are already crazy rich. The magical motivating power of money goes beyond making a living. It's like dollar bills have natural pheromone scents in them that induce action at a level deeper than conscious thought.
A cash money bonus in one's hand / is to / ________
Couldn't we harness psychology in education? I've heard that 70% of candidates would be willing to light their own hair on fire to get a campaign donation or free promotional slot on Fox news. Surely, given a similarly powerful motivation, teachers would be willing to light their students on fire--and "education is," as I am reminded annually by surrogates of William Butler Yeats, "not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."
Why not offer the stick/carrot combination of merit pay to teachers?
Well...for basically the same reason that you don't use warm rocks to motivate mammals. There is a fundamental mismatch between what teachers value and what merit pay offers.
I have a lot of friends and relatives who are very smart people and who were encouraged to go into fields like medicine, engineering, even business--and who decided to become teachers instead. Knowing in advance what the salary difference was.Which pretty much proves these aren't the kind of people whose standard decision-making processes are based on maximizing their access to piles of cash.
Teachers do care about economics, of course, but they are largely people who value stability rather than about maximizing earnings. That's why good benefits packages are attractive to most teachers, while merit pay is not. The same incentive structure that sends salesmen salivating just makes teachers nervous.
So teachers complain about how hard it is to measure student achievement accurately. Teachers' unions lobby against merit pay plans. And politicians, who thought they were offering teachers a good thing, pass bills anyway and accuse vocal teachers of being crypto-communists.
But what would happen if lawmakers stopped trying to force merit pay on teachers and offered them something they actually want instead?
What if they rewarded good teachers, for example, by leaving them alone?
I've talked to several teachers about this and their eyes always seem to light up when I paint the picture for them. What if, I say, in reward for better tests results, you were given greater reign over your own curriculum? What if good teachers were rewarded by being freed from at least part of the burden of state and federal mandates dictating how they'll spend their time?
Most teachers didn't get into teaching to make more money; they got into teaching to make a difference.
Can we stop treating them like salesmen and reward their successes with flexibility and trust?