Mike the Mad Biologist

Is Merit Pay the Answer?

By way of Brad Delong, I stumbled across this column by Washington Post editor Ruth Marcus calling for merit pay for teachers. Centrist Democrats, particularly those who suffer from a touch of Compulsive Centrist Disorder, have been pushing this since the early 80s. And it makes no sense to me.

When I think about science education, these are the areas that I think need dramatic improvement:

1) Fully equipped science laboratories. You actually have to do some science occasionally.

2) Funding for the occasional trip to a museum, nature preserve, or science lab.

3) Smaller class sizes. Anyone who has taught at any level recognizes the importance of class size.

4) Better overall facilities.

5) Hiring science teachers who actually have scientific training. That’s going to require money.

6) Related to the previous point, science teachers need opportunities to continue their training, with a focus on how to use that information back in the classroom.

7) A national curriculum. Right now, we don’t have a U.S. educational system; we have thousands of local systems. Why, when Europe is beginning to creep into the post-nation state era, do we have a localized educational system.? Is our system better than EU educational systems? While I don’t think U.S. students ARE DOOOMMMMEEDD, a fractured system does impose costs. Every time a student moves and switches schools, that student risks falling behind or being unprepared.

Oh, I forgot another one:

8) Don’t teach sectarian dogma as science.

That might help too.

Obviously, rewarding good teachers and penalizing bad teachers would be good. Unfortunately, no one has proposed good solutions for doing this. And yes, poorer schools will have more bad teachers. But most teachers aren’t bad teachers. Despite Garrison Keillor’s joke, ninety percent can’t be in the top ten percent. They’re average or good, and what they need to be better is support–that is, funding. Support that can be given at the federal level to do the things I’ve listed above.

None of the merit pay proponents ever ask: is merit pay the best way to support and help teachers?

Comments

  1. #1 cuchulkhan
    July 20, 2007

    Most schools that fail do so because their students have low IQ’s, it has little to do with bad teaching. This proposal is blank slate nonsense, it assumes all students are equal and the only thing making one student better than another is the input (teaching), not the innate abilities or lack thereof the students themselves bring to the table.

  2. #2 Agnostic
    July 20, 2007

    Liberals could easily slaughter conservatives & centrists in this debate, but they’d have to admit the unadmissible: that individuals differ in intelligence and personality traits (such as conscientiousness), that such differences are moderately to largely heritable, and that what environmental effects that there are do not conform to what we think of as “nurture” (such as proper parenting).

    Thus, without a magic wand, teachers are powerless to make their students much smarter in an IQ sense. Indeed, no educational interventions are able to raise IQ so that the change lasts into adulthood. Head Start can help basic literacy, but not IQ.

    Therefore, merit pay would have to take into account the kid’s pre-existing and largely unalterable level of intelligence and personality (measured by tests, questionnaires, observations, or whatever). Smart kids are easier to teach, so a valid system of merit pay would ask “Did the teacher cause the kid to absorb as much information and skills as is possible, given how smart they are?” That is, what value did the teacher add to what was already there?

    This is just a fancy way of saying what most teachers would say, if they were frank, to the whiny mother who wants to know why her son isn’t acing the class: “Look, lady, it’s not my fault that your kid’s a dumbass.” But liberals have painted themselves into a corner on educational issues (NCLB too) by hectoring anyone who mentions the two taboo letters “IQ.”

  3. #3 todd O.
    July 20, 2007

    I agree with you Mike, except that here in California, teachers make tens of thousands of dollars below the median income. That must be remedied forthwith. I’m not sure merit pay is the answer, but many many people who would be gifted teachers simply cannot afford to do so. Here in SF, new teachers start at 40K (the median for SF is 77K); it’s even worse down in Santa Clara County where teachers start at around 50K but the median is 108K.

    The support issues you mention are key to the quality of education, but I’d like to see K-K-12 education treated like a profession with the social respect and status that should be accorded those we entrust with educating children.

    But like I said, overall I support what you’re saying. In CA, new teachers burn out at a rate of 50% within their first five years of teaching. That’s not only due to sub-middle-class level pay, but also to a complete lack of support from the local communities, counties and the state in terms of equipment, class size, discipline, personal safety, working conditions in general, text books, etc.

  4. #4 Emily
    July 20, 2007

    My mother teaches ESL and Special Ed in a Title IV middle school school in Houston. She’s an incredible teacher and wins recognition every year from her district. This year, she was even promoted to manage the ESL programs for the entire district. None this would happen if a merit pay program was instituted because her students don’t blow the standardized test away. A majority of them just pass it, and a good number fail for reasons beyond her capacity to rectify. That’s still a big accomplishment, though, considering most of her students are one of six children living in a two-bedroom apartment, managing their finances with gang money. The only teachers merit pay will benefit are those who are already compensated well (by comparison) in suburban and other wealthy schools.

    The problem with education right now is so big that slapping a “quick fix” like merit pay is only going to exacerbate the problem.

  5. #5 Michael Schmidt
    July 20, 2007

    Perhaps the real problem is that politicians are afraid to support education, for fear that a more enlightened populace might demand more intelligent politicians and vote their own kind out of office.

  6. #6 bigTom
    July 20, 2007

    As a very science literate person who is considering science education as a late-career move your item #8 is of great importance. The prospect of getting into trouble with fundamentalist parents or school boards causes me great hesitaion.

  7. #7 Doug Alder
    July 20, 2007

    Pour the money into bringing all teachers salaries up to a respectable professional level and then concentrate on pre-natal health and nutrition as well as nutrition for the kids in school as those are far more effective at raising IQ than anything else that can be done.

  8. #8 Gerard Harbison
    July 20, 2007

    A fairly high fraction of university faculty pay increases are generally tied to merit: in addition, there’s a healthy job market for star performers, that has the effect of rewarding merit. So if it works post K-12, why shouldn’t it work in K-12?

  9. #9 ponderingfool
    July 20, 2007

    Do they actually measure whether students are learning with regards to merit pay? Doesn’t seem to encourage the faculty where I went to graduate school nor where I am doing my post-doc to teach well. Their focus is on research, getting published, always looking ahead to when they will need to renew their R01 and other grants. Those that do make an effort to teach do so because it is a personal interest. Those that mentor their grad students do so for similar reasons. They don’t do it for reward. There is also the fact there are more people trying to get tenure track positions than positions.

    At the K-12 level there are so many variables with regards to whether students learn. It is hard to really control whether a teacher is really doing a grreat job vs. good job, a good job v. an average job, an average job v. a mediocre job, a mediocre job v. a bare minimum job. The absolutely poor jobs are usually spotted easily. In districts with resources typically the upper tiers of teachers keep their jobs (those in the great, good areas with some average slipping through). In poorer districts they are forced to take from a larger selection because their burnout rate is high and fewer teachers apply. Want better teachers first and foremost you need more people to get interested in teaching. That is what Mike addresses. Those resources would attract more people (especially those talented in the sciences) to teach and retain them in the system.

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