Friday, March 2, 2012

Why Merit Pay Is An Awesome Idea--For Reptiles

"In the history of bad ideas, this one's a humdinger, okay?"
-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 reptile
A cash money bonus in one's hand / is to / ________
Look, 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.

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?


  1. Just want to say, as an educator, that I'm not against more money! There are many difficulties to merit pay, however. First, how does one measure merit? There are so many factors and so many of them have nothing to do with whether the teacher is great or not. Good teachers are too busy to do self-promotion. Secondly, it's hard enough to find time and energy to collaborate with other teachers, although working together is in the interests of the students. A divisive strategy of having teachers compete for merit pay would discourage this even more.

  2. I don't agree that teachers are not motivated by money. They may be less motivated by wealth than people in other careers, but that's not to say that teachers wouldn't do more for more money. Actually, I've seen professional educators jump through lots of hoops in order to raise their pay. And the more veteran teachers I've worked with have seemed more jaded by the compensation. Maybe it's a career that you start out in with an ideal and then it gets old after a short 5+ years and you feel like you're being used.

    Maybe at the college level, teachers want more freedom with their curriculum, but I don't think that's a motivator for teachers at the Jr. high and elementary level. The elementary teachers I've seen could use a LOT more prep time and smaller class sizes. It's hard enough to keep current on so many subjects with the state core curriculum to limit things. I imagine losing those limits would just feel like more work to do with time you won't be compensated for. (Also, as a parent, I would oppose more freedom for teachers designing curriculum. There are already some pretty weird things being taught by well-meaning teachers who just don't know what they're talking about.)

    As for merit-based pay, I might be for it. There would have to be some valid measures, (that seems complicated) and it would have to be incentive pay on top of the regular salary with benefits. I agree that stability is a big draw to the career. I also have noticed that a teacher prepares much better when they know they're being evaluated. With teaching, as with most things, measuring the performance really does improve it.

    1. I have a good friend who teaches second grade here in town. He's a great guy and gets a major altruistic rush from helping kids learn, but he's about ready to quit teaching. Why? Because so much of what he does is mandated anymore, and so much of the mandates don't reflect his basic sense of what young children need, that he feels like he's in prison.
      One of my mom's cousins teaches kindergarten in California. She used to teach the kids letters by making posters, by singing songs: whatever she could do to interest them. Now her district requires her to drill them most of the day because they're terrified about not passing the test. Kids need enthusiasm, but tests don't measure that, so teachers have to teach performance over joy instead.
      I do agree that measuring performance often improves it--but you get what you measure, and often at the expense of something else.


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