More Merit Pay Madness- Sunday Editorial on Editorials

This Sunday Chuck McKay, a Newport, Maine high school teacher launched a brutal attack on merit pay for teachers and teacher accountability. Boy, there is so much to cover. Chuck really missed just about every mark in his assault. Let’s begin at the end. McKay warns us that, “when President Obama announces his support for “merit pay” for teachers, before you stand up and cheer, make sure you know exactly what “merit” really is.” Chuck, before you stand up and jeer merit pay take your own advice. Let me give you a little helping hand.

Later in his article Chuck admonishes those who believe teacher accountability an integral pillar of education reform. He then goes on to preach class size as a magic bean that will solve all our problems

from Bangor Daily News

You could fill an Olympic swimming pool with all the studies that prove lower class sizes result in higher student achievement. You would think that would translate to lots of new job openings for teachers.

Taxpayers seem more concerned about getting more for less, research be damned. So, school boards won’t cough up the coin to hire more personnel; communities would rather maintain status quo and keep taxpayers docile.

Ok, there are studies that suggest class sizes under 20 in the early grades help set a good foundation. A small class does not a good teacher make. A poor teacher is a poor teacher for 1 child to 100. Same goes for a quality teacher. You can’t deny that Chuck.

Chuck claims it is impossible to measure the quality of a teacher. He dismisses merit pay as “goofy” because the lack of a ruler for teacher quality. Or perhaps because he cannot see past what he has been ingrained to believe about merit pay.

Some reformers recognized that student assessments must be part, but not the only piece, to teacher accountability. Chuck assumes that we would only base teacher accountability on student scores, which must be inherently evil.

from Bangor Daily News

How do you quantify the value of a teacher? Test scores? Please. For starters, it is unfair to students to assault them with another battery of tests, this time directly affecting the livelihood of their teacher.

Yes Chuck, part of the value of a teacher is what a child has learned in their class. That is never detached from the profession. That is the main reason for teachers, to teach. One of the ways to measure that is by test scores. Chuck falsely assumes that this will require more exams. That is an unfair scare tactic. Why must we have more tests? Why can’t we use the ones we have. The MEA testing system has been in place here in Maine for some time. I will it say again, as I’ve said before, standardized tests aren’t perfect. We need to reform them away from a multiple-choice format. Tests should be problem solving and analysis based, considering grade level of course. Why Chuck doesn’t consider that possibility I can’t say.

Chuck’s next argument against merit pay based on student assessments? His students are out to get him!

from Bangor Daily News

As a student, I wouldn’t want the pressure of knowing my performance has a direct impact on my teacher’s ability to support a family. As a teacher, I wouldn’t want students who didn’t like me deliberately tanking the test.

As a teacher, or a person in general, you know some people like you and some don’t. Some people are malicious enough to manifest their dislike in unsavory ways. Yes some students may deliberately do poorly on the test, but I find it hard to believe that would be an issue. Students should have a stake in doing well just as much as teachers should. How we could set that I’m not sure of at this time, but their test scores would most likely follow them through school and beyond. Also, what about a teacher who grades a student more harshly just because they don’t like them? That happens too. Not often, but it does. That doesn’t mean we close down the school does it? If you follow Chuck’s logic it does.

In one last jab against testing, Chuck tries this salvo.

from Bangor Daily News

Most importantly, testing as the penultimate measure of an educator’s worth ignores an obvious but overlooked truth: The most important thing you learn in school is not the content of any particular discipline. The most important thing you learn is how to learn. Try measuring that on a test.

Instilling a life-long love of learning in a child is an important endeavor. So is teaching children how to find the answers on their own. If a teacher is consistently failing to impart the basics on their students so that they can continue on their own how can that be called a success in any stretch of the word?

Chuck continues by suggesting that principal evaluations of teachers wont accurately measure quality.

from Bangor Daily News

Most teachers I know in various school districts are observed in class once or twice a year, at most, by their administration. On those occasions, a teacher can usually prepare his or her best lesson, not necessarily the one that best represents his or her typical job performance.

Principals probably have other methods of knowing which teachers are good and which are bad. But then, your next principal won’t necessarily agree with the current one.

You would need to come up with some legendary, magical teacher evaluation system in order to transcend good-ole-boy politics and inconsistent pedagogical philosophies in schools where the principal’s office has a revolving door.

Again Chuck believes that we can only use one form of measurement at a time. Combining many forms of accountability provides checks and balances, negating some of the flaws of each alone. Chuck is right on one thing. We need more principal and administrative visits. Make them surprise visits as well.

As teachers are accountable (partly) for student performance, a principal should be accountable for their staff. Principals should be subject to merit pay as well. This would provide principals with greater incentives to find teachers in need of assistance and reward those with better performance.

Last Chuck says that we are not able to factor in many intangibles when figuring merit pay.

from Bangor Daily News

What is the price of finding the book that turns a kid on to reading? What does it cost to prevent or break up a fight at school? What would you pay to have a teacher discipline a bully instead of looking the other way? How much is it worth to have someone notice changes in a child’s behavior and intervene, thus preventing a suicide or a drug addiction? Or implement a new teaching technology, even if it means more headaches, because it might empower kids? What tax increase would you tolerate to have a gifted child find her passion?

Ah but we can factor in those things. With the combination of peer review, student review, and principal review all of these things will factor into pay. It may seem callous to attach a monetary value to things like providing extra help to a student or taking initiative to introduce new methods, but we should. To pay someone who puts in the hard work the same as a teacher who just floats by is completely unfair. Those who go the extra mile should be rewarded. When we ignore those factors we are effectively saying, “Thanks for the extra work, but we aren’t going out of our way to recognize your excellence.” How much of that can one person take before they stop trying? We have got to break this culture that ignores achievement and rewards complacency.

Chuck assumes, like so many, if we can’t have a perfect assessment system we should have none at all. It’s just not fair! Well Chuck, it’s not fair to let things continue the way they are. I would much rather we get things in place to start progressing toward a better system then continue on the same path. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but Chuck seems to provide none. If you read this Chuck, I was a little harsh, but you got me fired up. Also, I’d like to see your solutions Chuck. Readers, yours too.

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8 Responses

  1. Much of what you say has merit, but you missed the overall point of my article: determining the quality of a teacher’s performance is harder than it looks. Your idealistic points do not conquer my concerns.

    Your words: “To pay someone who puts in the hard work the same as a teacher who just floats by is completely unfair. Those who go the extra mile should be rewarded.”

    Of course it’s unfair. We live in a capitalist society, which means the price of labor is not determined by how hard someone works. It’s determined by supply and demand first, quality second. Equating effort with quality is overly simplistic.

    How do you identify the teacher who is “just floating by,” and differentiate him from the teacher who has refined his teaching methods so he doesn’t have to work so hard? I don’t work nearly as hard now as I did when I first started teaching five years ago, mainly because I’ve learned what lessons and techniques tend to work well, and I am more effective at using the resources around me. Under your logic, I should have been making more money five years ago than I do now.
    My contract requires me to be at work from 7:45 to 3:15 each day, September to June, with several vacations mandated in the interim. You will find very few teachers who will say this is enough time to complete the bare minimum requirements of their jobs. (In what other line of work can a person be considered inadequate for simply meeting the requirements of his contract?) To the extent that I work beyond the contract I am essentially volunteering my time. If my employers actually wanted me to work during summer vacation, they would work payment for it into the contract. I think I speak for most teachers when I say, “Yes, please, add two weeks in the summer to the contract and increase my pay correspondingly. I was already working that time anyway.” The fact is, most communities in Maine are thrilled to have their teachers work extra hard, but only if they don’t have to pay them for it.

    Therefore, any evaluation system that does not rely strictly on empirical evidence, with no opportunity for subjectivity, opens the door for school administrators to succumb to political pressure to keep the budget under control by reducing the number of teachers who are awarded merit pay.

    To put it another way:
    Judging merit subjectively (observations, evaluations, etc.) will result in decisions made under political pressure. Judging merit objectively (testing) ignores the fact that teachers are molding human beings, work that is far too intricate to be encapsulated in some sort of assessment that is efficient enough for anyone to be willing to actually pay for.

    One more time: “A small class does not a good teacher make. A poor teacher is a poor teacher for 1 child to 100. Same goes for a quality teacher. You can’t deny that Chuck.”

    Oh, yes I can. Again, you oversimplify the picture. You should have said something like this: A poor teacher is a poor teacher for one child, but an extremely poor teacher for 100.; and likewise for a quality teacher. Simple logic dictates that the fewer pupils I have to attend to, the more attention I can give each one. If I had half the students, I could write two paragraphs of comments on each term paper instead of just one paragraph. This is the type of change that would make an actual impact on teaching quality.

    If you want to read my words as tacit approval of the current system, so be it, but it is not intended that way. Obviously, the system has flaws, and we should address them. Let’s address them in a way that would actually make a difference, instead of invoking some utopian view of fair pay that would create more problems than it solves.

    Thanks for reading and for keeping the democratic process healthy.

  2. A few points to address:

    I wasn’t equating effort with quality. If you go back and read some of my previous posts, you’ll see that I believe an “A for effort” is bunk. Let’s not reward just because someone works harder, but because they work harder and get results. A teacher who consistently fails their students or merely floats by should not receive the same pay as one that excels. That is good business. A good police officer will move ahead and receive bonuses, while a poor officer will need extra training or be let go eventually.

    I know that and a lot of what I wrote simplified the arguments. I could have written an entire book on the subjects and we know people have.

    It is wrong that you should have to be considered volunteering when you work extra. That should be taken into consideration when pay evals are done. It is these kind of things that keep many qualified teachers from the profession. Merit pay will help alleviate that.

    I don’t for one second believe that merit pay or “fair pay” is any sort of silver bullet or utopian. Please it’s the opposite. Utopian would be to keep thinking all teachers will perform well and are already working as hard as they can with the current system. Most do work hard, but there are some who don’t. Some people just don’t make good teachers. They need to get aid and then taken out if they don’t improve. In a utopian world all teachers would work hard just because it is the right thing to do and everyone would get the same pay. I think you missed my point as well.

    I agree that class size is preferably smaller, but if we are talking about budgets it’s a greater increase to expand the teaching force than to pay certain teachers more. Policos will be more likely to veto the large increases in hiring more teachers. Maine is already having a hard time affording the 11.5 to 1 student to teacher ratio. 88% of districts have exceeded budgets due to class size. State officials are already worried schools are budgeting smartly. Rewarding those who excel and not those who don’t will be seen as a smart use of money.
    The majority of my fews are elaborated on in Common Sense School reform by Frederick Hess. I really encourage you to pick up a copy. Merit pay would be only one arm of school reform. The combination of many reforms written of in the book must be used in conjunction. Each alone is flawed. We need to move toward accountability and flexibility. I agree it will be hard. Some things will work and others wont. We will fix or scrap the things that don’t and keep moving along until we get it right.

    If you have an education book you think I should read please let me know, I’d be happy to read it.

    Thank you for replying. I think you have written the most interesting and most insightful comment I have ever received on my blog! I really would enjoy discussing this further.

  3. Still, you have not addressed the question of how to define “quality” when it comes to teaching. You refer to this vague notion of a “bad” teacher (“some people just don’t make good teachers”), but you haven’t told me how to tell which ones they are. You claim we could weed them out with some magical combination of student assessment and employee evaluation, but you provide no insight as to how this system would account for all the complexities of human development.

    Let’s say we test all my students in September. As a group, they have to improve by 10% by June in order for me to get a raise. In the meantime, one of my brightest students moves away, and another bright student suffers a death in the family and falls way behind. Meanwhile, sometime in February, a student with special needs gets transferred out of his remedial reading program and into my mainstream classroom. Are the overall numbers going up 10%, if I have a small population of students? How much of that was under my control?

    You could say it’s a function of the traditional test format, but a standards-based portfolio assessment would present the same problems. If I have two students join my ranks in semester 2, having moved from other districts, how much energy should I devote to covering September’s material with them so I have a better chance of getting my raise? Only to have the kid move away again in May because he’s going back to live with his other parent?

    We’re dealing with human beings here. Chaotic, undeveloped ones, at that. This is the key point. Good teachers make a difference, but that difference can look like a lot of different things. We have a teacher at my school who seems to have a terrible attitude. He’s grumpy and surly, claims to dislike students and is only teaching because he loves his subject area (biology). Students complain more about him than any other teacher in the school. They are constantly in the guidance office trying to switch out of his classes. He leaves immediately after school almost every day. He refuses to explore new pedagogical methods and drags his heels on incorporating technology changes that make school business and classroom instruction more efficient and more empowering for students.

    Sound like a bad teacher? He also wrote a grant for an afterschool tutoring program, specifically targeted at underprivileged students. He supervises a student group that explored basic principles of physics and set a Guiness World Record for building the World’s Longest Canoe. He is considered a genius in his field. By a lot of measures, he is a “quality” teacher. Would you give him a raise, or not? In your words, is he “failing his students,” or is he “excelling?” Maybe human beings can’t be so easily dumped into black-and-white categories.

    Thanks for the conversation and the kind words. These types of debates really get my blood pumping.

  4. You’re right, things aren’t black and white. Which is why we need peer review, administrative review, student review, and student assessment. I concede again that assessments and principal reviews need reform, big time.

    I also do not make the claim that I have come up with a magic formula. Just plugging this or that into an eval would not lead to progress. That is why education administrators should be given flexibility to judge these things.

    Teachers need to be involved too. They are the ones in the trenches so to speak, maybe that analogy is not so far off in some schools. You can probably pick out who is doing a good job overall and who isn’t. Who is pulling their weight or riding on others coattails.

    The whole assessment system needs drastic reform. I admit I don’t have all the answers as to how it would work. As the founder of one of the second biggest teacher’s union said (I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have it in front of me) “Performance pay isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the system we have.”

    Reformers, teachers, administrations, etc. need to sit down and really put some strong thought to this. It can work. It’s not a scientific process or a math formula. All levels of education staff should get together to define what should be rewarded and what are signs for help or termination.

    Still we evaluate doctors and police officers. Their work directly touches lives. There are many tangibles at play there as well. We still evaluate their work. Employees are rewarded or not based on this. A police officers job can be equally as chaotic as a teachers.

    Let me ask you a question? What are you set expectations at your school. Do you know what the principal expects of each teacher? What about what is expected of the principal? Do the students know? There may be expectations already. Each school is of course just as much an individual as each teacher and student. But if there isn’t I ask you this, what other professional career has no expectations for its employees? Some employees work do what they needed but some would not. Expectations let people know what they should be doing, evals show who is and isn’t, who is going above and who is falling behind.

    We shouldn’t forget evals aren’t malicious. We want to help teachers who aren’t meeting expectations. Give them the chance to improve.

  5. Police officers have strict protocol and procedure to follow based on the situation they’re confronted with. Sure, their work “directly touches lives.” But it’s not as if they go into a traffic stop ready to alter their behavior based on the unique needs of the individuals involved. Same with doctors. If someone needs a gall bladder removed, the surgeon is expected to use her training to execute the procedure. And the procedure is specifically laid out for them in their training.

    The expectations for teachers are vague, with reason. No two teachers have the same situation to deal with. I’m expected to maintain my license, which requires providing evidence that I’ve met a set of general goals I’ve set for myself. I participate in curriculum planning and I’m expected to execute the curriculum in accordance with my own teaching style. Quite frankly I have no idea if someone could meet these expectations and still be considered a “bad” teacher in your view, because you still have not told me what a “bad” teacher is.

    “…education administrators should be given flexibility to judge these things.” You have not addressed my point from before about politics playing an unfair role in teacher evaluation. What incentive is there for a principal to grant pay raises when he has to answer to the school board for the bottom line in his budget? And what about my first point, way back in the original op-ed, that not all principals will have the same definition of what is a “good” teacher?

    “I concede again that assessments and principal reviews need reform, big time.” What kind of reform? My whole point to begin with was that when people actually sit down to figure our the logistics of those reforms, they run into bigger problems than they were trying to solve.

    Thanks…

  6. Expectations for teachers shouldn’t be vague. If you think about it they aren’t are they. You are expected to impart your students(and I don’t know what level or subject you teach) with a certain level of knowledge. This is what they need to move on to the next level. We should not be ambiguous about the benchmarks however. Elementary students should be able to read, write, and perform math. Secondary students should be capable of basic algebra, vocabulary, problem solving, and expressive and analytical thought.

    Those skills are gateways to the many wonderful realms of knowledge. If they can’t master those then they wont get to learn history, science, etc. They wont have the basis. A bad teacher let’s children go by time and time again, not just with a bad day or a troubled student, without a grasp of the basics for that level. Plain and simple. This excludes children with learning disabilities, but most schools that I’ve worked with or attended have had modest special ed departments, equipped to handle many learning challenges in and out of the classroom.

    Now accountability does not stifle a teacher’s particular teaching style, or force them to the test. As long as a student is meeting or exceeding, those exceeding could be given work at a higher level as well prompting more bonus for the teacher which don’t always have to be monetary I should have added, then whatever method works. If your students best reach their goals while you teach hanging upside-down then so be it. We should never be using accountability as a tool to force a particular method on teachers. Those ideological battles are best left in the teaching schools.

    The level of quality of a school or teacher cannot always be judged by level of performance. Level of progress must be taken into account heavily. A teacher is not responsible for where a student starts, only where they end. If the levels are already high then clearly they are already doing good work and must maintain that, giving more weight to that end then improvement. Also, when we work more from improvement we keep scores of high mid and low scoring students in mind seeing noting progress and maintenance of good scores.

    Skills assessed should not be overloaded. Once we start tacking on things like say foreign languages, chemistry, or music mastery that leads to homogenized schools and unnecessary circular interference. Accountability is not about pushing impressive test scores, but ensuring that all students at least have the basis to continue learning and growing year after year and that all students have a degree that is more than just a piece of paper.

    I suppose politics could play a role, but doesn’t it now? I worked for a school district in Maine and a College as a computer tech. Just from that position alone I could see how things worked. Who got their problems addressed the quickest? The superintendent or the College Pres. Who waited longest? The “whiny” teacher who was still working on an apple i-mac (the ones with the rainbow array of colors). The favoritism disgusted me. I’m sure you could describe many instances of this sort of office politics from your own school.

    It happens, but when everyone is held accountable it happens less. If a system is set in place where we know what to expect, know who will get a raise or other non-monetary reward, who will not, who will be let go what can the school board say. If we set these standards before hand there will be no surprise in the budgets. Teacher salaries and benefits already make up about 80% of the average school budget. Teachers are still hired, given tenure with pensions to maintain afterward, and given across-the-board raises. And you think they will complain about spending money more effectively?

    As far as the logistics of reform, just because it is difficult or raises more issues doesn’t mean we should stop. The system is broken. It must be fixed. I’ve mentioned a few things on test and standard reform many times in my blog before. I wont go into all of them here, or my other thoughts on reform. I could write 100 posts about them, and I will. This will be my last comment. I think we could keep this back and forth up for another decade. Please refer to my blog archives and “Common Sense School Reform” by Frederick M. Hess. Mr Hess’ puts much of what I have been saying more eloquently than I do and he provides a slew of nice data to back it up. That will give you a much better understanding of what I have been trying to convey. Thanks again for the good debate!

  7. I think you might enjoy this essay/speech by Daniel Quinn:

    http://www.ishmael.org/Education/writings/unschooling.shtml

    I’m curious to know what you think.

    –Chuck

  8. I’m no anthropologist, but a great deal of that article makes sense.

    I’m sure you’ve seen more than a few articles touting “21st century learning” or similar phrases. The system itself needs fundamental changing, not so much cirriculum tinkering. We are in a 21st century society pushing education in a 19th century frame of mind. This article, to me, shows that.

    It also, oddly, directly links to something I was reading this morning on how children learn best.

    http://www.ed421.com/?p=805

    Check it out! It’s right up my alley as far as method. But again whatever method get’s your point across is the best method. I would never want to force a teacher to teach a certain way. I would say that the method outline in that above link makes the most sense to me.

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