Thursday, October 1, 2020

DeVos Wants To Revisit Failed Merit Pay


Yesterday's announcement of education department grants came packed in a lot of air-stuffed puffery from some alternate universe where we're expected to believe that these programs announced by Betsy DeVos "build on her commitment to elevating the teaching profession and empowering teachers." Because if there's anybody who's known for having teachers' backs, it's the DeVosinator.

"Great teachers deserve to be treated as the professionals they are," announced the woman who called the public schools (where most great teachers work) a "dead end" and who has suggested that during the pandemic public school teachers have just been slacking off.

One grant program (Supporting Effective Educator Development, aka SEED) is supposed to "increase the number of highly effective educators." The by far largest grant in that program ($5.2 million) is going to Teach for America, a group that knows less about preparing highly effective educators than just about any other outfit in the country, so this grant will be money well spent.

Awards were also announced for the Teacher Quality Partnership (TQP) is a tinier grant (only $7.3 million for the whole thing) that is supposed to support "innovative preparation models" that have the effect of A) improving student achievement, aka raising standardized test scores, B) elevating the quality of the teacher workforce, aka improving on all you crappy old teachers and C) recruiting highly qualified individuals for the teacher workforce, aka the old TNTP model of getting people into teaching as a second career on the theory that if you are a great nuclear physicist, you'll be a great physics teacher which, well, no.

But the real winner here, with a total price tag of $63.7 million, is the Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program. If you like your government programs wrapped in furry argle bargle, then you'll like this one, which is designed

to support local education agencies in developing, enhancing, improving, and/or implementing human capital management systems (HCMS) that include performance-based teacher and/or principal compensation systems (PBCS).

Each of the 13 fundees is set to "be concentrated in high-needs schools, and has the goal of increasing overall student achievement and closing the achievement gap..." 

Put it all together, and you've got merit pay linked to student test scores.

Here's the thing about teacher merit pay. It doesn't actually work. It has been tried; it doesn't work. Or, if you want to put it another way, there's not a shred of evidence that it does work.

There are plenty of reasons it doesn't work. For one, it makes the insulting assumption that teachers are slacking off and holding out, that when you offer merit pay, a bunch of teacher will suddenly jump up and say, "Yes! I've had the secret of teaching these students in my filing cabinet all along, but I've been waiting for someone to offer me a bonus for using it."

Also, when some teacher performance pay plans emerge, they often avoid saying the real impulse behind them, which is not so much "we want to pay good teachers more" as it is "we want to pay those bad teachers less." So merit pay systems often start with a below-rock-bottom base pay and then gives teachers a chance to claw their way out of that hole.

Teacher merit pay plans almost have to do that because there is a significant difference between public and private sector here. When Widgetcorps has a good year, it ends up with an extra pile of money, and it might decide to share that extra pile of money with its employees--voila! Performance bonus! The pie gets bigger, so everyone gets an extra slice. But in a public school, the pie never gets bigger, so they only way to do merit pay is to carve up the money you have. Well, okay-- the school board could go to the public and say, "Our teachers did such a great job this year that we need to push through a 5 mil tax increase to fund the performance bonuses they've earned." But I don't think that's going to happen.

The biggest problem is, of course, measuring teacher performance quality, which is crazy hard, so in the past few decades we just default to student scores on the Big Standardized Test, which makes a performance based system super-demoralizing for teachers, since it gives them little true control over their own performance rating.

The merit bonuses have gone to a few actual public school systems, including DC public schools, Miami-Dade's school board, Providence public schools, and Toledo's public schools--none of these are districts who have exactly demonstrated a great handle on performance quality. Hell, DC's teacher evaluation system has been an endless shit show. The Insight Education Group Inc, an education consulting group, gets a cool $6.5 million. LEAD, Harmony, and IDEA-- three private charter school companies that like to use "public schools" in their titles-- will get over $10 million between them. Of the 13 groups getting grants, 9 were already riding on this federal gravy train headed straight for Failure Station in downtown We Already Know This Doesn't Workville. 

All together, this is $100 million of our tax monies being frittered away. I suggest that you not hold your breath while waiting for DeVos to elevate the teaching profession.

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