Merit Is a Principle, Not a Program
At last night’s Tiverton School Committee meeting, a member of the town’s hard left (a state social worker who, as I understand, was instrumental in banning the Easter Bunny when he was on the school committee), acting in his capacity as Voice of the Community, cited Providence Journal columnist Julia Steiny as some sort of authority on merit pay. What I continue to find striking, in this whole debate, is the thralldom to buzz words.
When I’ve thought of “merit pay,” it has essentially had the meaning “pay related to merit.” People who don’t like the idea of evaluations with teeth prefer to make everybody believe that those two words indicate a specific program that (fait accompli) has already been shown not to work somewhere. I’m surprised to find Steiny among those people.
She begins thus:
No evidence anywhere shows that merit-pay systems, aimed at individual teachers, improve education. Incentives to groups of teachers are effective, but not individuals.
From there she lists four “boondoggles” following from the assertion that “the moment you’ve drafted a complicated set of rules governing eligibility for individual ‘merit’ pay, you’re instantly mired.”
Boondoggle #1: Merit pay is money on top of the regular salary schedule and annual raises. Very expensive.
Teachers unions aren’t about to let anyone mess with their negotiated salary schedule.
This is defeatism from the outset. Here’s how the stage is set: A growing contingent of aggravated voters is beginning to take the reins from elected officials and “public servants” who’ve allowed the state’s and the nation’s education systems to be dragged into a pit of incompetence and greed, and one critical component of that action will be dislodging the rigid pay schedules that indicate nothing but seat-warming. Steiny’s response? It won’t work because it won’t work.
There’s no reason that merit can’t be inserted into salary schedules rather than layered as a too rigid merit system over a too rigid longevity system.
Boondoggle #2: Define “meritorious,” or even “good.”
Texas spent $300 million, over three years, to give excellent teachers bonuses of between $3,000 to $10,000. But without an iron-clad definition of “good,” clay-footed principals generally gave all teachers about $2,000, spreading the money evenly, broadly, politely. Student achievement didn’t budge.
That’s why the political will of residents that would have to be roused even to implement changes to the system must be maintained to ensure that administrators aren’t permitted to sail through with failing schools. Give principals and superintendents the actual authority that will make them responsible for success and then can them if the difficulties of restrictive contractual systems turn out to have been little more than cover for their own inability. Give them incentive, that is, to resist the restrictions. From a self-interested point of view, having a school committee give up management rights is to the benefit of administrators; we have to put their feet to the fire.
Boondoggle #3: If your definition of “merit” mainly involves test scores, the performance of the “bad” kids will get worse.
Part of giving administrators authority is requiring them to determine what examples of merit will improve the school’s performance. Those who design the system shouldn’t attempt to define every contingency in order to leave administrators no work but to insert a bunch of numbers into an “objective” formula. That’s no less inappropriate than declaring that teachers can’t possibly be evaluated and so must be paid according to longevity.
Boondoggle #4: Merit pay encourages all manner of gaming the system.
You could take the “pay” right out of that sentence. Any form of incentive that might actually prove desirable will motivate those who are better at politics than at their profession to attempt to game the system. Consequently, we get squishy leaders suggesting awards and smiley-face stickers. Parking spaces. Lunches with the boss. Anything that’s kinda-sorta nice, but not so attractive as to actually drive behavior or increase the quality of the candidate pool.
This attitude can’t stand. The system has to change. It has to change now. And the biggest obstacle to that change is the broad swath of people who’ve got one thing or another that they wish to preserve in the top-down control of the education system.