Can They Think Outside the Box? – More thoughts on merit pay and policy wonks

I posted a few days ago about my evolving thoughts on merit pay. The catalyst for this was a study on class disruption and learning. The comments left pushed my thinking on the subject even further. I’d let to post the discussions here today and get some more thoughts on there on merit pay.

Just to recap, the article I read from Change.org pointed out that even one disruptive student in a classroom can taint the learning experience for the whole class. Commentator d.eris of Poli-Tea Party illustrates the principle with a little anecdote from the Simpsons.

from d.eris

I’m reminded of a Simpsons episode in which Homer and Marge are hauled into the school and are shown a diagram of the grades of students who sit in Bart’s immediate vicinity. In a set of concentric circles, grades go up as distance from the trouble-maker increases.

If someone hasn’t written “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from The Simpsons” they someone damn well should!

It becomes easy to see how one tiny factor can skew assessment scores in any given classroom. Most teachers get their students by pure chance. One teacher could have a classroom full of students ready and willing to learn. Another may have a student with a learning disability or a constant rule breaker.

Chuck of Tongue-In-Cheek weighed in as well. Chuck and I have discussed merit pay before. Chuck applauds me for beginning to see the merit pay light, but also puts my solution for disruptive classrooms in perspective.

from chuckrates

Now you’re starting to see some of what I was trying to tell you about why merit pay is unrealistic. Executing proper discipline/behavior management against the “bad apple” is not always an effective solution. In my 5 years of teaching experience, the “bad apple” is not always breaking the rules. Often, he/she just has a poor attitude, or has special needs that must be accounted for to the detriment of my ability to attend to the other students.

Again, it’s all oversimplification. There might not be one “bad apple” in a certain classroom, but maybe there are three generally good kids who are shy or don’t work well with others. There goes my unit that centered around group projects. Maybe teacher A has a class in which five students miss a week of school because of a band trip, but teacher B has only one such student. Six people in Teacher A’s class (counting the teacher) now have to work significantly harder if they are to keep up with Teacher B’s class, which can pretty much continue as normal.

Just to be clear: I’m not opposed to merit pay. I just consider it unrealistic because there’s no way for it to be fair in the reality we live in. Sort of like Libertarianism — yeah, the world might be a better place in a lot of ways if it looked like Libertarians want it to look, but how in the hell do you get to that point without nuclear holocaust or something?

I’m starting to see the situation is far more complex than can really be solved by one measure. We can’t think that school is a factory line. Info in citizens out. There needs to be some outside the box thinking here.

I’m not convinced Obama, Duncan, etc have it in them to approach the situation in this way. I like you, think there are ways so improve learning, use merit pay, etc. The execution at this point is just all wrong.

It’s like Lee at Gettysburg. Everyone is telling him you know if we just packed up and flanked these guys they will leave their HIGHLY DEFENSIBLE POSITION. Lee just says, “naw let’s just cross miles of open ground and march straight up that darn hill. (I know this is a gross oversimplification of the battle and circumstances surrounding it. Just let it go this once.)

Also I’ve had the Libertarianism argument before. I’ll refer to His Little Majesty James Madison on this one. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Unfortunately a country needs a little more guidance than making sure its citizens don’t kill themselves and countries don’t invade. Libertarianism, and communism for that matter, take a utopian view of humanity I just don’t subscribe to.

There is a point to this. There is really no way to make the pay system for teachers 100% “fair”. There are inequalities inherent in the system that just can’t be avoided. There are circumstances outside of the educator’s hands. People do not carry an equal share of the work. Unless we genetically engineer the perfect teacher there wont be even teaching ability, then what would be the point of paying them anyway.

Can the pay system be made more efficient? Yes. Can the pay system reward teachers for exceptional work? Certainly. Are the current merit pay proposals we’ve seen the solution? No way. Will merit pay raise student achievement? Anyone who thinks any one reform on its own will solve out education woes needs their head checked.

The merit pay proposals we’ve seen attack the problem directly, like a factory. Merit pay crafters seems to have assembly line sickness. If we input this we will get this output. The solution is far from that cut and dry. What we need is outside the box thinking. I’m not convinced merit pay, or at least a better pay system, can’t be achieved. Antiquated linear thinking wont get us anywhere.

Are these policy crafters in need of some lessons in 21st century skills?

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6 Responses

  1. Though I am not very familiar with the policy and its effects (intended and otherwise), it seems like the ‘fairness objection’ could be addressed by the fact that every class is going to have its stumbling blocks somewhere along the way, and so over time the difference between teachers A and B’s levels of success that can be ascribed to ‘the luck of the draw,’ for lack of a better term, will eventually even out.

    On a different note, you may get a kick out of The Simpsons and Philosophy, if you’re not already familiar. 😉

  2. Though I am not very familiar with the policy and its effects (intended and otherwise), it seems like the ‘fairness objection’ could be addressed by the fact that every class is going to have its stumbling blocks somewhere along the way, and so over time the difference between teachers A and B’s levels of success that can be ascribed to ‘the luck of the draw,’ for lack of a better term, will eventually even out.

    On a different note, you may get a kick out of The Simpsons and Philosophy, if you’re not already familiar. 😉

  3. As far as merit pay is concerned I don’t think that would work. Pay considerations would have to be decided on a yearly basis. So If you do have a bad year, that is directly linked to your students grades or test scores, you will be penalized that salary decision period.

    That is the fatal flaw in deciding pay on grades alone. Most merit pay proposals I’ve seen so far focus on grades as the only factor in judgments. If pay adjustments were decided say every three or five years then it may not be such an issue to have students assessments linked to teacher pay.

    I still am not sure that grades can be linked to pay at all. I am sure that they cannot be the only factor in any case.

    Any teachers or ed admins to weight in on this?

  4. As far as merit pay is concerned I don’t think that would work. Pay considerations would have to be decided on a yearly basis. So If you do have a bad year, that is directly linked to your students grades or test scores, you will be penalized that salary decision period.

    That is the fatal flaw in deciding pay on grades alone. Most merit pay proposals I’ve seen so far focus on grades as the only factor in judgments. If pay adjustments were decided say every three or five years then it may not be such an issue to have students assessments linked to teacher pay.

    I still am not sure that grades can be linked to pay at all. I am sure that they cannot be the only factor in any case.

    Any teachers or ed admins to weight in on this?

  5. It may be worth having a look at Debatepedia’s extensive pro/con article on merit pay for teachers. Helps put this article in the context of the larger debate:

    http://wiki.idebate.org/index.php/Debate:_Merit_pay_for_teachers#Con

    http://wiki.idebate.org/index.php/Welcome_to_Debatepedia!

  6. It may be worth having a look at Debatepedia’s extensive pro/con article on merit pay for teachers. Helps put this article in the context of the larger debate:

    http://wiki.idebate.org/index.php/Debate:_Merit_pay_for_teachers#Con

    http://wiki.idebate.org/index.php/Welcome_to_Debatepedia!

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