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.

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13 years ago

Merit pay won’t work, never has. Deming identified merit pay, annual reviews, etc. as one of the Seven Deadly Diseases of Management nearly 3 decades ago, yet folks like yourself hold to the idea that this time results will be different.

Taking action on the basis of results without theory of knowledge, without theory of variation, without knowledge about a system. Anything goes wrong, do something about it, overreacting; acting without knowledge, the effect is to make things worse. With the best of intentions and best efforts, managing by results is, in effect, exactly the same, as Dr. Myron Tribus put it, while driving your automobile, keeping your eye on the rear view mirror, what would happen? And that’s what management by results is, keeping your eye on results.

13 years ago

I read some of Deming’s work and philosophies and they are interesting. I myself believe that merit pay for teachers would be very difficult to implement in many ways agree with Steiny’s points.
But … I didn’t see anywhere that Deming advocated worker unions. I didn’t see where he advocated pay increases solely on experience. He also advocated personal responsibility and leadership of the workers. He advocated workers and management working together on shared goals. One of his other seven deadly diseases was excessive medical costs for the employer. Do you agree that is a problem too? Or just the merit raises.
In short, while Deming might agree that merit pay is not the solution, based on his philosophy I don’t think he’d agree with anything else you would advocate in terms of increasing production in any field.

13 years ago

In short, while Deming might agree that merit pay is not the solution, based on his philosophy I don’t think he’d agree with anything else you would advocate in terms of increasing production in any field.

msteven, a bit of a red herring considering we’re talking about the “merits” of merit pay. And I’m not quite sure what to say about the personal dig other than to note that I make a decent living advocating total quality management best practices.
As to the rest of the comment, constancy of purpose has nothing to do with organized labor. TQM has been implemented in many unionized industries; there is nothing incompatible about the two. And let’s not forget where Deming suggests we begin: “The problem is at the top; management is the problem.”
(btw, you won’t find many progressives who don’t agree with Deming’s 6th deadly disease)

13 years ago

You advocate TQM and I work as a statistician and am knowledgeable about use of SPC in production environments. Your quote about management being the problem may be accurate but that does mean not the worker has no responsibility. I’m sure Deming would agree. I’d go so far to say that often the problem with management is that they enable or continue to allow lack of productivity.
You have quoted Deming as saying that merit pay does not work and management is the problem. But as you say, we are talking about the “merits” of merit pay and you pointed out that Deming did not agree with it on the basis that it does not increase production. Does that you mean you advocate the current system of pay increases for teachers – on the basis that it does? If not, on what basis should there be pay increases for public teachers? This is what we are talking about.

13 years ago

“Does that you mean you advocate the current system of pay increases for teachers – on the basis that it does? If not, on what basis should there be pay increases for public teachers?” I don’t think seniority or education based pay is a bad solution, though not necessarily as a way of improving teacher/student performance. There’s plenty of research that indicates pay is one least effective methods for improving employee performance. Deming is said to have responded to the question of what to do instead by saying, do whatever Peter Scholtes says. Here’s what Scholtes said (quoted at length this time): There are two alternatives to performance appraisal that managers don’t like to hear: 1. Change the way you think. Until managers let go of their obsession with the individual worker and understand the importance of systems and processes, they will not enter the quality era. Without this change in mind-set, managers will continue to look for alternatives that are no different from what they are trying to replace. 2. Just stop doing it. When you are doing something that is demonstrably harmful, you can stop doing it without finding an alternative way to harm yourself. Conventional managers are, in effect, beating their heads against the wall and asking, “If we stop beating our heads against the wall, what will we beat our heads against?” One way to develop alternatives to performance appraisal is by debundling. If performance appraisal is a fragile cart asked to carry too heavy a load, we can remove each piece of baggage and build for each a separate vehicle designed specifically for that function. Here are some steps to take in debundling: 1. Acknowledge each service and expected benefit as something important for the organization to successfully accomplish. 2. Treat each as a separate… Read more »

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