Paying More for Good Teachers

Jason Shephard:

If Wisconsin lawmakers ever get around to seriously pondering changes in K-12 education, they should ask UW-Madison professor Allan Odden about research linking teacher bonuses to student performance.
“Democrats, Republicans, big-city schools and small rural schools all want to change teacher pay structures,” says Odden, co-director of the UW’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education. “The real challenge is getting viable ideas and plans on the table.”
Across the country, school districts have had mixed success with merit-pay programs, lately dubbed “performance pay” to broaden political appeal.
In January, Houston expanded its school-based bonus system to target individual teachers, who can receive $3,000 bonuses if students meet performance expectations. Last year, Denver began a $25 million plan that pays more to teachers who earn advanced degrees, take tough assignments and meet student-achievement goals. And California lawmakers last year proposed a constitutional amendment linking teacher pay to student performance.
But, as with many other educational reforms, Wisconsin has been slow to embrace merit pay. This, says Odden, may be because educational leaders here are “a little bit squeamish about testing and uncertain about strong state accountability measures.”

11 thoughts on “Paying More for Good Teachers”

  1. I wonder if districts that go to merit pay have as strong a union presence as we have in Madison? I remember one of MTI’s big complaints during Lawrie Kobza’s campaign was that she favored merit pay…and they shouted pretty loud about that amongst their constituency. Could the MMSD go to a form of merit pay AND keep labor peace?

  2. How would merit pay work? What criteria would be used to measure merit? Any system one comes up with can and will be gamed.
    Merit pay processes do not pass the smell test. As usual, all proposed solutions look at influencing the educational processes indirectly — throw something at the wall and hope it sticks.
    Of course, the really solution is hard and has no support: good set of curricula, appropriate and effective parental support, enough resources, class size, community support, teacher preparation in other than the latest educational fad, appropriate continual student assessment, diagnosis and remedies.
    No, let’s not look at substantive issues. Let’s throw money at the problem and hope something works.

  3. Quote: Any system one comes up with can and will be gamed.
    True enough. But some criteria are better thought out than others. Because it is difficult to develop a merit system does not mean the idea should not be studied.
    The alternative is to keep what we have. Bad teachers get compensated as well as the exceptional ones. The union guarantees this outcome. There really has to be a better way.

  4. I certainly would be unable to identify a bad teacher — except in extreme cases.
    I’m reminded of the ideas of Deming in “Out of the Crisis”, applicable to both factories producing goods, and services such as education. In short, it’s typically not the worker (teacher), the failure is in the system.
    Of the diseases and obstacles, he calls “Deadly Diseases” is merit review.
    “3. Evaluation of performance, merit rating, or annual review…. Basically, what is wrong is that performance appraisal or merit rating focuses on the end product, at the end of the stream, not on leadership to help people….
    The idea of a merit rating is alluring. The sound of the words captivates the imagination: pay for what you get; get what you pay for; motivate people to do their best, for their own good.
    The effect is exactly the opposite of what the words promise. Everyone propels himself forward, or tries to, for his own good, on his own life preserver. The organization is the loser.
    Merit rating rewards people that do well in the system. It does not reward attempts to improve the system. Don’t rock the boat.
    Degeneration to counting. One of the main effects of evaluation of performance is nourishment of short-term thinking and short-time performance…. It is easy to count.
    Stifling teamwork. Evaluation of performance explains … why it is difficult for staff areas to work together…. Good performance on a team helps the company but leads to less tangible results to count for the individual…. Result: every man for himself.
    Fair rating is impossible. A common fallacy is the supposition that it is possible to rate people…. The performance of anybody is the result of a combination of many forces — the person himself, the people he works with, the job…. In fact, apparent differences between people arise almost entirely from action of the system that they work in, not from the people themselves.”
    — W. Edward Deming, Out of the Crisis, pages 97-111.

  5. Larry,
    If you are not able to identify a bad teacher then you do not have enough children or experience in the school system. Any school system really. There are wonderful teachers all around this district, but if you walk into any school the administrators and teachers in any building could identify a teacher that is doing a poor job. I have only complained about two teachers in my tenure as a parent. Once I was told I must be mistaken, the other time a principal said “I know and we are working with that teacher to improve their skills”. I almost fell out of my chair….they admitted their was a failing and they were working on it. The sad part is that teacher has been at the school for over 10 years and parents have complained forever and the inservice continues.
    Merit pay would not solve this problem….merit pay would only reward those able to teach students to take a test or truly able to motivate and education students, but it would not desolve the problem of continued promotion and employment of incompetent teachers or staff.

  6. I would agree that merit pay is not a good solution. Setting up a situation in which teachers are competing rather than collaborating will serve no one.

  7. So, Mary B, obviously, since I disagree with you, I must not know what I’m talking about.
    Let me repeat once more!
    Yes, in extreme cases only, I can tell a bad teacher (did you read that part of my previous post?). So you were able to identify an extreme case — that’s easy.
    But, clearly, you fall into the group that sees teachers as equally replaceable parts of the educational machine or you believe they should be. One teacher should be just a good as another, regardless of the environment they are placed into or the system that has been set up.
    Not true — and never will be. So let’s rate teacher objectively. I will guarantee you that on any measure or set of measures, about 50% of the teachers will be above average, and about 50% will be below average. That’s practically the definition of “average” (for “median”, it will alway be exactly true).
    It is precisely what Deming, Senge, Drucker, and others argue –that failure (lack of success), in the vast majority of cases, is due to systemic, not personal flaws. Since lack of success is not personal, neither is it appropriate to punish lack of success or success — except in the provably extreme cases.
    So, who will get merit increases — those teachers who are best at self-promotion and closest to those who control the decisions.
    So, a board of education deals almost exclusively with the superintendent and his/her staff. Maybe they know the principals (depends on the district size). Who are the most important persons in the educational establishment from the board’s viewpoint? — those they know and deal with — the superintendent and staff. So who will get the praise and blame for all systemic problems in a flawed system? Those the board knows.
    Who does the superintendent know and deal with? His/her staff and principals. Who are the most important people in the view of the superintendent? His/her staff and principals. To whom does he/she listen? His/her staff and principals. Upon whom will he/she heap praise and merit pay increases? His/her staff and principals.
    What about the 1000’s of the unwashed masses of teachers? Well, from the rareified heights at the top of the hierarchy, they all look the same. And from these rareified heights, the reason for lack of success is that the teachers are just not trying hard enough. Merit pay — that’s the ticket!
    What teachers will get merit pay? Those who promote themselves to the principals, who can promote themselves to the superintendent.
    Farther up the hierarchy is the politicians. A more perfect example of complete and utter incompetence cannot be found. “Merit pay” from a group that has never and will never make a decision based on merit.
    The problems are systemic. A population that is highly schooled but uneducated, persuaded by shock-jock radio, slogans and sound-bites; educational research that has little in common with science; a population in love with gadgets (that will solve all our problems); a population in love with fads; a population that believes you can spend your way out of problems caused by spending.
    So, let’s spend money on merit pay. Let’s give the 6th grade teacher credit for the blossoming of her class, when it was the nourishment from the 5th grade teacher which caused it; why should the 5th grade teacher work hard when it will be the 6th grade teacher who will get the credit? Let’s promote individualism of teachers when it is teamwork and constant communication which supports school improvements. As teamwork collapses, spend money on asking why, come up with new explanations (it won’t be merit pay), spend more money to solve the lack of teamwork (maybe grant merit pay for the number of hours spent in teamwork sessions, and taking teamwork professional development courses), now teachers are not spending time in the classroom, let’s spend money to increase the school day, even making it year-long (no summer vacations), spend money to replace teachers in the classroom with computer learning tools, replacing the library (we need the room), with no library, reading ability, already low, goes down, spend money on special reading courses (we need more money for reading research).

  8. I’ve mentioned this in a post before when merit pay was discussed. Mesa Public Schools in Arizona had (may still have) a merit pay program back when I was a teacher in the late 80’s (god, was it that long ago?). It was an extremely rigorous and time consuming process for a teacher. The requirement was to develop a portfolio (I’m sure I still have mine in a box in the basement) to identify how you are achieving above and beyond in “teacher competencies” and “student achievement”.
    The program was deemed “Career Ladder Program” and was non competitive and actually, in many cases, very collaborative as teachers developed portfolio’s together. I always recieved merit pay when I applied, and I had students with disabilities, so my “state achievement” scores weren’t always stellar. But that was only one piece of the portfolio. More important, I think, was the development and implementation of curriculum, fostering parent involvement, continued education and professional development, collaboration with colleagues and overall participation in the positive climate of “school”. I never felt any competition-you applied if you wanted the money, you didn’t if you didn’t. Very few were “turned down”.
    So, you spent an awful lot of time getting the portfolio together the first couple of years, but then you simply added to it each year to move on the “ladder”. I don’t know how the funding worked-but I assume it was part of a grant funded project. We had a strong union, and there were no issues, because really, who can argue with teachers getting more pay for going above and beyond to affect student achievement?

  9. Elizabeth,
    I’m wondering if I’m misunderstanding what you’ve written. It sounds to me as if you are confirming Larry’s assertion that teachers who take the time to self-promote got the merit pay?
    I spend a lot of time developing materials and collaborating with my team. I use all (for what it’s worth)of my planning time productively. I also spend 1-2 hours a night after my kids go to bed on my school work. Maybe it’s just because I’m reading this after a long, tiring day, but the idea of putting together a portfolio (to prove I deserve recognition for what I do) just feels stressful.
    If I had to do it, I could and would probably do it well–when I give it my attention I am a good writer. Concerningly though, I know excellent teachers who would be less adept at self-promotion, and mediocre teachers who are great at self promotion. Ironically, I think that those of us who are the most aware of our need for ongoing improvement (and therefore spending the most time working on our craft) are less able to sell ourselves than those who are confident that they are already doing such a great job that they don’t need to learn anything else. Clearly that is not the case across the board, but it is not unusual either.

  10. Well, I’ve refrained from this thread until now, but I couldn’t resist :):)
    I guess I disagree with the notion that a merit pay system necessarily would result in the practice of teachers who are good at self-promotion getting merit raises, and those who aren’t, don’t. Again, generalizing from my own experience, some of the very best teachers I know are some of the least self-promoting people I know. It’s an admirable trait, yes, but in some small ways I find it a bit irritating, because they seem reluctant to “promote” their abilities and expertise to their colleagues. As I mentioned in a previous, similar thread, I do think true excellence in teaching is not as broadly shared as it perhaps ought to be.
    The central dilemma in establishing any kind of merit pay system seems to be this: it transforms how wages are established in almost all districts (through collective bargaining, essentially a shared decision between labor and management ((I’ll leave aside QEO debates for a later thread)) ) to another model. My guess is many teachers might oppose such a transformation because they view it as lessening their control over their wages. That gets at Mr. Cohen’s notions of merit pay vs. labor peace. But that’s a different issue than whether wages should in any way be tied to teacher competence, or student performance, or any other measures that a merit pay system incorporates for determining wages.

  11. ‘But that was only one piece of the portfolio. More important, I think, was the development and implementation of curriculum, fostering parent involvement, continued education and professional development, collaboration with colleagues and overall participation in the positive climate of “school”.” — Elizabeth, above.
    Wonderful statement. Her description is of precisely the systemic and systematic approach that are keys to success.
    A system, perhaps like MMSD’s (we can discuss this), in which curriculum is handed down from above, for which there does not seem to be objective data proving its worth as implemented here (I haven’t seen it; forget the research — how does it work in practice?), and no or little parental input and buy-in, and in past years, little interest at the Board of Education level, would not be a place where merit pay would work.
    The extent to which such systematic approaches are at work in MMSD schools, merit pay would not be needed. To extent that these systematic approaches are not supported in the District, merit pay will not work.
    It does come down to community-wide support and commitment to school improvement (highlighted by some of the School Improvement rubrics posted on this site).
    Praise and blame heaped on to teachers, when the problems and solutions are systemic and community-wide (school-wide), is counterproductive.

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