Teach Your Children Well


Dana Goldstein in Tapped:

One of the major developments in education policy this year has been the Obama administration’s continued, focused attention on the issue of merit pay, despite a lack of strong evidence linking such programs to increased student achievement. On Sunday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appeared on “Face the Nation” and reiterated this agenda.


After looking at North Carolina schoolchildren for 11 years, Jackson found that students’ test scores improved when a high quality teacher taught in their grade-level — even if they were not themselves in that teacher’s class. Why? The positive impact comes not because teachers are competing with another for merit pay rewards, but because they are working alongside more competent colleagues, who are improving their skills.

“If it’s true that teachers are learning from their peers, and the effects are not small, then we want to make sure that any incentive system we put in place is going to be fostering that and not preventing it,” Jackson told Education Week. “If you give the reward at the individual level, all of a sudden my peers are no longer my colleagues—they’re my competitors. If you give it at the school level, then you’re going to foster feelings of team membership, and that increases the incentive to work together and help each other out.”

Matthew Yglesias:

Indeed, for all the controversy around differential pay schemes at some level I don’t think even the most old-school of teacher’s union leaders seriously dispute this logic. After all, it’s extremely common for collective bargaining agreements to offer enhanced salaries to teachers who have more educational credentials. The logic here, presumably, is that more educated teachers are more effective teachers and thus it makes sense to pay extra to retain them. The diplomas, in other words, are a proxy for quality. Similarly, veteran teachers get paid more than brand new teachers on the theory that a more experienced instructor is a better instructor. The principle that it makes sense to pay extra for quality isn’t seriously in dispute. The problem is that diplomas and time served turn out to be bad proxies for quality: “Recent research, however, suggests that such paper qualifications have little predictive power in identifying effective teachers.”

The reform proposal, ultimately, isn’t all that radical. Rather than paying extra for very weak correlates of effective teaching, why not just pay extra for effective teaching? To the extent that such a compensation scheme creates incentives for teachers to improve their own performance, that will be nice. But the real benefit to paying for quality is that, over time, it will encourage effective teachers to keep teaching while encouraging ineffective teachers to find jobs to which they’re better-suited, thus improving the overall quality of the instructor pool.

Kevin Carey at The Quick And The Ed:

To recruit and retain good teachers, schools need a lot more than merit pay–they need strong leadership, good facilities, safe working conditions, and the right kind of organizational culture. You can’t paper over the lack of those things by simply tacking on a salary bonus, even a big one, to the existing steps-and-lanes pay scale. That’s what most most “merit pay” plans have been, historically, and that’s why they haven’t worked.

Instead, we need to scrap the steps-and-lanes pay scale altogether, along with near-automatic tenure, absurd job protections and the like, and let districts and schools pay their employees the way all successful organizations that rely on professionals involved in creative work pay their employees: through a combination of subjective managerial judgement and hard data, including standardized test scores.  We can’t bribe or force-march great people into hard-to-staff schools, we need to build schools great people want to teach in, and that means fully recognizing their value in all ways, including pay. It also means ensuring that the other teachers in the school, along with the principal and larger management, see things the same way.

Will at The League:

I’m not opposed to experimenting with different incentive structures, so rewarding schools collectively may be worth trying. But it occurs to me that across-the-board opposition to certain reforms is precisely the wrong way to go about fixing our public schools. As E.D. says, all education is local, and foreclosing district- and state-level experimentation on the grounds that it may not work or that it offends members of your ideological coalition seems pretty silly. Maybe there’s something to Goldstein’s collective rewards program (then again, maybe not). Maybe correlation doesn’t equal causation and merit pay is a false hope. To return to the DC example, however, we’re talking about a school system that spends a ton of money and is still ranked as the worst in the country. So why not give merit pay a shot?

More Yglesias:

When I wrote yesterday that it would make more sense to pay more money to more effective teachers, Steve LaBonne responded in comments that “Merit pay is a way for ‘reformers’ to try to fellate teacher-bashing conservatives. I would have thought that was obvious.”

I think that’s really nonsense, and the implication that the idea that pay should be differentiated based on effectiveness constitutes “teacher-bashing” is bizarre. When it comes to compensation, it seems to me that there’s an easy way to distinguish between people who have a favorable attitude toward teachers and people who have a negative attitude toward teachers. If I were interested in “teacher-bashing” I would think our society should dedicate a smaller quantity of aggregate resources toward paying teachers. In fact, I think we should dedicate a larger quantity of resources toward paying teachers. That’s because I think education is important and evidence suggests that teacher quality is among the biggest non-demographic factors in determining student achievement. Under the circumstances, it makes sense to invest a lot of money in hiring and retaining teachers.

That said, once we’ve hit upon a given pot of money to spend on teacher compensation, a question arises of how it should be divided up. One way to divide it up would be evenly—each teacher could make the same salary. That would, however, be a bit weird and we don’t do it that way. Instead, we pay teachers more the more experience they have, and we also pay them more when the acquire master’s degrees. As I said yesterday, I think the only way to make sense of these forms of differentiated pay is that they’re already a system of “merit pay.” The point of paying higher salaries to people with advanced degrees has to be the belief that teachers with advanced degrees are more effective than teachers without advanced degree. It turns out to be the case, however, that research says this is wrong. I don’t think it’s “pro-teacher” to be giving teachers financial incentives to essentially waste their time acquiring advanced degrees that don’t help them. This is simply an irrational way of divvying up the compensation pot.

Megan McArdle:

This is one of those odd areas where Matt and I are in total agreement.  We should pay teachers much more than we do.  Right now, they take a substantial portion of their “pay” in the form of near-total job security.  People like this benefit.  But in most cases, they shouldn’t have it, because it has predictible effects on performance–particularly when it is coupled with a pay scale that relies on measurable but not very useful traits like advanced degrees (totally useless) and seniority (the benefits of experience eventually level off).  The only thing teachers have a financial incentive to do under this system is keep their butts in the teacher’s chair, and acquire useless degrees from programs that mostly teach students how to sit through long and pointless classes.

The obvious thing to do is to strip the protections and up the pay, while using merit metrics to determine how that pay is allocated.  But the union has very good reasons to resist this.  For one thing, depending how you implement it, you’ll substantially reduce the role that the union has in setting salaries, and thus its value to the membership.  For another, more than 50% of their membership are, definitionally, average or below-average.  Merit pay is probably not a good deal for them.  Especially if they’ve spent valuable years of their lives acquiring useless M. Ed. degrees.

On a life-cycle basis, merit pay is only good for the minority of teachers who can produce outstanding results early and often.  The rest used to have the comfort of knowing that they would eventually get to the top if they just ground away long enough.  Hopefully, we can overcome this if we throw in enough money to sweeten the deal–as we should, anyway, if we want to attract great teachers.  But it’s a grinding battle everywhere it’s been fought.

More Will


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