Friday, August 7, 2015

Merit Pay Fallacies

Cynthia Tucker Haynes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who has hooked up with Campbell Brown's reformster-pushing website. She has done much distinguished work throughout her career, but last week she demonstrated that she doesn't understand teaching and especially not teacher merit pay.

The title of the piece pretty well gives us the whole picture: "Excellent Teachers, Like My Mom, Deserve Better Pay. No Matter What Their Unions Say." Yes, grammar police, the title is a punctuation abomination (suggesting, among other things, that her mother is not actually a teacher), but we're going to skip past that.

Haynes follows the standard template for this sort of piece, opening with an anecdote about a Really Awesome Teacher (who is, in this case, the writer's mom). In her opinion, her mom should have gotten bonus pay for being more awesome than other teachers, but the school district didn't offer it. And now Haynes lays out a mistaken and self-destroying argument.

Indeed, few public school districts do because the concept remains so controversial among teachers’ organizations. 

Not the whole truth. In fact, lots of school districts like the traditional teacher pay ladder because it makes budgeting for personnel costs so much easier. With a merit pay system, school districts have only two approaches available to budgeting (a process that begins over a year ahead of time in my neck of the woods).

#1) We don't know how much merit pay we'll be giving out next year yet, so we'll just leave the budget unfinished. The state should love that.

#2) We will budget a finite merit pay pool, which the teachers will then have to fight over in a zero sum teacher thunderdome. That should be great for school morale.

Haynes notes that merit-based pay systems require a means of linking teacher pay to student performance, which counts as an unexamined assumption, but let's slide on by for now. She asserts that finding such a linking system is contentious, but doesn't need to be. I think she thinks she goes on to explain why not-- but she doesn't. She says that Race to the Top required states to whip something up; she fails to examine whether or not the states whipped up anything that actually works.

She offers an NEA quote cautioning against a system that makes students a mechanism for earning pay instead of young human beings deserving of an education, and she says it's bunk, that of course the only purpose of schooling is to make an educated human being and so the only measure of a teacher is the product that pops out the end of that teacher's assembly line. 

Since student learning should be the end product of teaching, why shouldn’t it be measured?

Ma'm, you asked, so I'll answer. Because it can't be. Because there's more to learning than answers on a single standardized test. 

She makes the "everybody does it" argument, claiming that the corporate world is rife with performance evaluation and this particular argument is getting old. Does she want performance evaluations like the ones that earned banksters big fat bonuses for tanking the US economy, or does she mean that we should keep using stack ranking for teachers even as corporations like Microsoft are dropping it for being counterproductive?

She admits that her mother resisted the idea of merit pay, and at the very end of that paragraph drops this nugget:

Having spent several years teaching in segregated schools where Jim Crow ruled, she wasn’t sure her white superiors would assess black teachers fairly. 

She notes that her mother might have been right, that in fact the old state-led idea of merit pay was that black teachers merited less pay than their white counterparts. This elevates her piece to the level of crazy talk, because she shows that she knows the answer-- that a teacher pay system based on "merit" has, can, and will be twisted and tilted based on biases that have nothing to do with merit at all. I don't have to tell Haynes why her argument is bunk because she has the answer right there in what she wrote!

Oh, but no worries. Haynes says that "times have changed." It is not clear what she thinks has changed-- there's no more racism, or there's no more biases in schools, or there's now a magical method for evaluating teachers that is totally fair and impervious to any sort of tilting? All she references is that her mother now believes that teachers should be trained and selected more carefully, which she takes to mean that her mother now supports a merit pay system, but I'm not so sure.

I agree that teachers should have more control over preparation for and entrance to our profession, and that point seems to be lurking around the edges of this piece.

But Haynes never really proved anything that she set out to prove. Are unions single-handedly obstructing merit pay systems (and doing so in defiance of their own members)? The answer's way more complicated than that. Do we have a system for evaluating teachers accurately and fairly? Everything we've learned over the last decade says, "No, we don't" (look at this recent study from Houston for one example). Is there a way to finance such a system that would not be toxic for school districts? Nobody has proposed one yet.

Look-- there is huge support everywhere for the idea that good teachers should be rewarded more than poor teachers. But we don't have the first idea how to do it. It's like saying that everybody agrees that cancer should be wiped out or only good-tasting asparagus should be sold in stores or people should only marry partners that would be their perfect match. It's a great idea, but until anyone gets a clue about how to do it, it's just a fun discussion for 3 AM in your freshman dorm.

Haynes is a good writer, and I have no doubt that Brown is paying her well. She can do better than this.


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  2. Great article! My big problem with merit pay is that it "grows on trees" in the eyes of reformers.

  3. Another problem with merit pay is that it's insulting, the idea being that teachers need the promise of an external reward to do their best work. "I have a lot of really good lesson plans in the back of my file cabinet, but I don't see why I should use them unless they pay me more."

    That and the competition aspect - the rewarded teachers' "success" can come only with the "failure" of other teachers. That does wonders for morale and collaboration.

    1. Yes, insulting. It assumes you do not have the integrity to do your job as contracted and are manipulable via (usually) amounts of cash too small to change your lifestyle or status, making you out to be a petty, cheap money-grubber to boot. But maybe that's just me.

  4. Yet another problem with merit pay is that it ignores decades and decades of research saying it doesn't work. I highly recommend Daniel Pink's Drive as a nice summary of the body of research.

  5. There are many reasons merit pay doesn't work, and has never worked. So why, you may ask, do people keep pushing it? It's because it's away to cheap out on paying teachers. The ones in charge will be the folks determining WHO designs it, HOW it's designed, and HOW it's funded. In essence, it's a way to cheap out on paying teachers. When you throw out the easily codified salary increases based on years teaching, and replace it with the blurry metric of "merit", teachers get financially screwed, and the kids get educationally deprived.

    There's also cases where so many teachers reach whatever threshold is needed that they run out of money to pay all those who've earned "merit pay." Sorry... we ran out... try again next year!

  6. The other prong of this attack is to devalue years of experience on the job, and deride the idea of pay based on years on the job. Pursuant to that end, is the ludicrous comparison of "years teaching" to "height."

    Dr. John Deasy, LAUSD Superintendent | Interviews | Tavis Smiley | PBS

    The quote is at —

    03:52 – 04:29

    (the CAPITALS and () parentheticals are mine, Jack)

    “As far as Last-In–and-First-Out, I don’t support that in any fashion whatsoever… uhhmm… in the notion that when you have to make decisions to lay off faculty because of budget cuts—and we know here in California, we’ve been through a horrific situation, uhhh… in terms of lack of money for public education—the decision has to be made solely on the day the person is hired. Well, why don’t we use teacher HEIGHT? I mean, THAT’S objective… uhmm, you can easily determine the highest, the tallest teacher. You wouldn’t do that either. So why (base it on) some day (i.e. start day on the job)?

    “You want to be able to make a decision on the contributions teachers make…”

    At this point in the interview, Deasy then deviously dishes out some disinformation and misdirection as he gushes about how wonderful some teachers and their “contribution” is, and and that “honoring” those good teachers’ contribution is the only and real reason he’s out to gut all teachers’ job protections in backing the Vergara decision.

    Gee, how nice of him.

    Why MUST those evil teacher unions get in his way when all Deasy wants to do is “honor” teachers? What’s WRONG with them? They’re all just corrupt, defenders of a failed status quo putting their own adult self-interest ahead of the children that they’re failing to teach!

    Deasy says that a teacher’s length of service should be totally ignored when making personnel or compensation decisions.

    THE REASON: basing such decisions on a teacher’s number of years of services is the same as basing it on a teacher’s number of inches in his height.

    Really, John? Seriously? You’re in your mid-fifties now, and it’s possible you may soon or eventually need open-heart surgery (or some other high-risk surgery.) Would you prefer to be operated on by a surgeon who’s done it…

    2 times before he operates on you?
    20 times before he operates on you?
    200 times before he operates on you?
    2,000 times before he operates on you?

    According to you, John, judging that surgeon on the prior number of times he’s successfully performed open-heart surgery is like judging him on the number of inches of his height.

    What an asinine analogy. Let’s compare it even further.

    INCHES OF HEIGHT: a teacher—or his supervising administrator(s)—has NO control over that, as it is decided in the womb.

    YEARS OF TEACHING IN THE CLASSROOM: being able to survive this is totally dependent on the teacher’s innate abilities, persistence, drive to work hard, and his determination to perform the countless and highly-demanding requirements of the job… and survive administrator evalutions, and prove himself / herself over and over to an administrator that they deserve to be on the job—even AFTER being granted tenure.
    Bad teachers can and do get justly pushed out all the time… without actually going thru the technical process of termination or “being fired.”. The same goes for high-paid teachers who are unjustly fired, in order to save money.

    What must a teacher do during that say, his first year of teaching, or 2 years, or 5, 10, 20, 30, etc., to remain on the job? What are some of the requirements that he must perform, or else, if he fails to do so, will get written up and eventually fired?
    Well, let’s examine that.

    Principals and other administrators come through our classes all the ding-dong day, folllowed by criticisms, e-mails and / or “conference memos” which demand and get immediate action.


    Parents can be equally demanding, as evidenced during the scheduled parent-teacher conferences during the school year, and those unscheduled conferences resulting from a problem the parent demands that the teacher MUST address.

    The students’ results on quarterly assessments—and annual standardized tests—in Language and Math are scrutinized to a fair-thee-well.

    Accompanying these analyses are demands to address the needs of those students who are falling behind., and administrative monitoring as to whether we as teachers have done so. (And this is apart from the annual or bi-annual “Stull” evaluation that teachers go through)

    Here’s more of what a teacher does:

    — detailed report cards;

    — lesson planning or all subjects (with a detailed lesson plan book with precisely stated objectives, methodology, etc— present and visible at all times);

    — endless, constant grading & gradebook record-keeping that would tax any accountant;

    — meticulously decorated and designed walls and bulletin boards ( with graded & finished student work corresponding to California Standards posted both in the classroom and in the hallway, and which must be changed regularly);

    — mandated classroom environment with required centers (library, listening center, etc.); constant photocopying / prep for the upcoming lessons);

    — I.E.P meetings for certain children with issues (with detailed documentation, writing, pre-planning, and execution of the I.E.P. plan itself);

    — after-school “homework” clubs / tutoring that most teachers offer (unpaid and off-the-clock mind you);

    — the grading of students’ writing (a very labor-intensive job by itself ) followed by individual one-on-one writing conferences with each student; regular after-school teacher meetings;

    — intervening in and counseling regarding bullying, fights, or the often toxic dynamics of cliques; grade-level meetings;

    — meetings of the entire faculty;

    — after-school professional development meetings;

    — the newly-mandated prep for the standardized tests;

    — constant intervention with misbehaving children involving phone calls / meetings with parents; home visits;

    — unpaid and emotionally-draining social work for children from distressed, impoverished homes with often-horrific personal situations;

    — constant organizing and cleaning of the classroom itself;

    — planning and executing of on-going projects;

    — purchasing out-of-pocket supplies;

    — the focused, on-your-feet performance of directed instruction itself; attending to children with special needs; and on and on…

    That’s only a PARTIAL list of what we are required to do.

    Now according to Deasy, the length of time that a teacher has performed these and other demands SHOULD MEAN NOTHING when making decisions in:

    paying that teacher (salary schedule);


    not firing/continuing to hire that teacher.

    Why? Well, because Deasy says that judging by the years on the job doing all this is the same as judging that teacher by the inches of that teachers’ height.

    The unbelievable demands they constantly have to meet, and the challenging and trying circumstances in which they work mean nothing to this man—or again, more specifically, the moneyed forces backing him.

  8. I've a little more to add.

    No doubt about it, teachers get better the longer they are on the job---in the same way that doctors, police, nurses, etc. improve. It’s totally counter-intuitive and defies common sense to think otherwise. Their instincts on how to handle the myriad of situations that arise—both academic and non-academic—become second-nature. Through trial and error and repeated practice, they improve in their ability in how to teach specific concepts—i.e. the dreaded “rounding” lesson in Math for the little ones, up to Calculus for the high schoolers. The constant ongoing evaluation from administrators—both formal and informal—sharpen all of their skills.

    In short, teachers are professionals, and should be treated with the respect that professionals deserve (including pay based on seniority), and not have their years of experience equated to inches in their height, and essentially told that those years MEAN NOTHING. What a slap in the face!

    If the idea that teachers improve with experience were not so, the websites of the expensive private schools would not tout the decades of teaching experience that their staff brings to the job.

    Deasy taught two years at a military school back in the 1980’s. That’s the sum of his own experience, so perhaps he’s intimidated by those with decades of experience… as well as carrying out his corporate masters’ marching orders in targeting veteran teachers.

  9. Ach! These merit pay arguments are so stupid.

    First: Despite what Haynes says, every other profession does *not* measure outcomes to determine pay. In fact, absent the obvious, like "did we make more money" or "did we save more patients," the outcomes for most professions remain nebulous.

    Second: Where people do try to measure, their instruments are usually crap. Those brilliant financiers who scooped up oceans of money no doubt had all kinds of gorgeous performance reviews. Then they all but crashed the economy.

    Third: Merit pay is so transparently meaningless. All teachers are "good" for some students, and not so much for others. Like all teachers, I find that some students will respond to my explanations or assignments by scratching their heads and saying "I just don't get it - I'm trying to do what you say but it's not working out." Meanwhile, another student will have an epiphany and show up in my office on and off for the next five years, saying "Your assignment / feedback / explanation just changed my whole direction." So how does this work - do I get $5 deducted for the student who didn't get it and $5 added for the student who did?

    1. Agree, totally, that the picture of how great the business world can identify and reward performance in a meritocratic, systematic fashion is largely crap.

  10. Teachers should collaborate, not compete.

  11. In my school this would be absurd. For example, we have a departmentalized elementary school. We have intervention periods for enrichment or remediation. The math teacher gets the glory, but I was remediating students in math basic skills and reviewing with them after school every night. I coordinated my enrichment and puzzle games with her lesson plans. She would even admit she did not teach math alone, the reading teacher backed her up with vocabulary and reading about how math is used. In science I made them use math in science, and we reviewed in my home room constantly. We do not have merit pay at this time...I am close enough to retiring that I do not care about accolades or phony merit pay. The students benefit greatly from our cross curriculum collaboration. Merit pay would threaten this.

  12. One thing that teachers—or any employees—should beware of is one-time “bonuses” or “stipends”. These are a way to cheap out on paying teachers, as the hourly base salary of teachers does not increase, or to put it technically, this is not reflected as a raise on the salary schedule.

    In Los Angeles, LAUSD kept offering UTLA “one-time bonuses” of this percent, or that percent, and UTLA negotiators wisely insisted that any percentage go on the salary schedule permanently, and be a permanent increase in hourly wages. Ultimately, UTLA teachers received a 10% raise last spring… that being a permanent 10% increase in their hourly and annual pay.

    That’s but one reason that “merit pay” is so appealing… it’s a maddeningly vague, nebulous, constantly changing metric set by the bosses that allows them to be the arbiters of who qualifies, and who does not. When you replace a salary schedule based on experience with the blurry criterion of “merit”, teachers end up getting screwed financially.