Expect Worse Performance and More Bureaucracy with Merit Pay in Education

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Andrea Neal recently wrote a column in the Indianapolis Star titled More Money for Best Teachers.  This opinion article attempts to convince us of why merit pay is really a good thing for education.  Although well-intended as most wrong-headed theories are, this one is especially egregious in conclusions without evidence.

So, let’s take a look at the argument she makes against each objection:

Objection: Teacher performance is impossible to measure.

Ms. Neal argues that it is possible to measure teacher performance.  She cites ISTEP scores for math and english, and pre-assessment and post-assessments for other subjects.

These things seem plausible to measure, but the measures we need are not individual teacher measures . . . they are system measures.   The difference is that performance of a student is 95% attributable to the system and 5% the individual.  Education does not have a teacher problem, they have a system problem.  The system is comprised of all those in the education system (parents, teachers, administrators, students) and other elements like structure, technology, work design, system conditions, management thinking, etc.

The argument that individual performance can be separated from the system is a flaw.

Objection: It’s not right to hold teachers responsible for problems children bring to school.

Ms. Neal argues that no one expects poverty-stricken children to post test scores equal to affluent areas.  She says we should be moving the poverty stricken children from the 20th to the 40th percentile.

She skirts the issue of the poverty stricken children that a teacher can overcome the system conditions (poverty) on their own.  Really?  Children can’t learn if their primary concern is eating – remember Maslow’s hierarchy.

Ms. Neal is way to simplistic in her argument that a teacher can overcome a child’s issues they bring to school.  It depends on what they are and they have great variety.

Objection:  Merit pay will pit people against each other.

Ms. Neal completely bails on this one, saying Eli Lilly scientists would collaborate.  She is saying what works in business is good for education.

She completely misses the fact that the US has been in decline in business since 1968 as marked by W. Edwards Deming.  The Indiana Governor is in Asia begging for jobs for Indiana, we are not at the top in many areas of business.

Further, I have received dozens of calls from laid off Lilly employees looking for work.  Former Mayor Bart Peterson completely sold out his principles (Democrat) to support the move to lay off thousands as a good thing for Eli Lilly.  I would not be using Lilly as an example of “good method.”

Merit pays problem is that it becomes the defacto purpose of teachers once put into place.  The purpose shouldn’t be test scores, trying to get the “smart” kids in their respective classrooms, shmoozing with administrators, etc., it should be to find better methods to teach to the different ways children learn.  This has to happen in the classroom with experimentation with new methods of teaching.

Objection:  Administrators will use merit pay to reward their friends.

Ms. Neal remarks that this is a risk in every profession and objective measures should be used.

The result is predictable.  Indiana will spend millions to make sure the performance system is objective and target teachers who do evil things like teach to the test.  We will invent a whole new HR bureaucracy in government to put an objective system in place, monitor it, and inspect teachers to make sure they aren’t cheating.  A few years ago, EDS  spent millions trying to do this and scrapped it, as performance assessment is subjective.

Objection:  All teachers are underpaid, so it would be smarter to pay all teachers more.

Ms. Neal argues that pay is a little better in the US as other developed countries.

OK, so if education is on equal footing with pay, then why is performance in education worse?  Because the two do not tie together, so merit pay won’t help.  The opportunity to improve education is to improve the methods of teaching and the system itself.

Objection:  There is no connection between merit pay and student achievement.

Ms. Neal notes that there are good arguments on both sides.  The RAND/Vanderbilt University study cites no notable increase in test scores through performance bonuses.  She instead cites some obscure study by an economist.

Her point is that increased pay through a merit system is not to boost student achievement, but to attract better teachers through changing the professional environment.

The truth is that if we want to change the professional environment we can start by getting rid of the Indiana Department of Education and the US Department of Education who spend our tax dollars on many failed ways to make education better.  We would have more money to pay teachers and attract the best and more money for teachers to experiment with new methods to educate students.  That is what would make the education attractive is knowing that the classroom is where value is created, not some bureaucracy with expensive programs.

Ms. Neal will be providing us with future stories on how to copy other countries education systems.  This is the same tact provided in the 1970s by manufacturing and we still haven’t caught up.  Copying and best practices has led to nothing but mediocrity and uncompetitiveness in the US.

Our hope is to realize that education is in the classroom with better teaching methods and a better education system starts in the classroom.  Let’s put our money and hope there and not in new schemes to add to Indiana’s debt.

Leave me a comment. . . share your opinion!  Click on comments below.

Make the new decade a profitable and rewarding one, start a new path here.  Download free from www.newsystemsthinking.com “Understanding Your Organization as a System” and gain knowledge of systems thinking or contact us about how to get started at [email protected].  Reach him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TriBabbittor LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/trippbabbitt.

Tripp Babbitt is a columnist (Quality Digest, PSNews and IQPC), speaker, and consultant to private and public service industry.

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