Columns » Warwick Sabin

On merit

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Will merit pay for public school teachers lead to better academic performance by students? I don’t know. So far the results are inconclusive.

What I do know is that the merit pay advocates in Arkansas continue to try to fund pilot programs anonymously, bypassing public discussion, choosing schools that are most likely to produce the best outcomes and then also paying for evaluations conducted by sympathetic analysts.

It’s infuriating to those of us who are open-minded about the potential of merit pay and other education reforms, but who believe that people with deep pockets shouldn’t be able to unilaterally and secretly impose their will on public institutions.

However, if Gov. Mike Beebe follows up on the promise he made in his State of the State address to launch a statewide pilot program for merit pay in the public schools, he could set some much-needed ground rules for how merit pay is tested in Arkansas.

Back in 2004, an anonymous donor financed the first merit pay experiment in the Little Rock School District, which was instituted by Superintendent Roy Brooks without consultation with the elected school board. (The funder was later revealed to be the Hussman Foundation, directed by Walter Hussman, publisher of the state’s largest newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.)

Similar tactics were used in Rogers last week, when the deputy superintendent of the Rogers public schools, Mark Sparks, announced that anonymous donors had pledged $2 million toward a potential merit pay program. The school board president said she didn’t know the identity of the donors. (Actually, it turned out to be just one donor: the Walton Family Foundation, as disclosed under duress on Jan. 26.)

“They have purchased the right to decide whether or not they are going to be private or public,” Sparks said of the donor. “It’s their choice, and if they choose to be public, that’s their business.”

That’s an incredible statement, really. Our taxes provide the bulk of the funding for public schools, and we elect school board members to set policies and oversee administration.

But apparently all it takes is a big infusion of cash to override the democratic process and get your favorite idea implemented in the public schools. Never mind if that idea is controversial or unproven. There is no need for a discussion or a vote — and no need to reveal your identity.

And along with your charitable gift (which was tax deductible because it was funneled through the non-profit foundation you control), you also get to dictate exactly where and how your idea is carried out.

In Little Rock, for instance, the privately-funded experimental merit pay programs were instituted only at select elementary schools — arguably the ones where test-score improvement was most likely to occur.

Finally, if you want to pay for the official evaluation of your pet project, go right ahead!

That courtesy was extended to the Walton Family Foundation, which not only funded merit pay pilot programs in Little Rock last year, but which also paid for the evaluation of those programs, which was conducted by the University of Arkansas’s Department of Education Reform, which was established two years ago with a $20 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

Isn’t that ridiculous?

Not surprisingly, the Walton-funded report by the Walton-funded academics about the Walton-funded Little Rock merit pay program was positive and uncritical. The researchers don’t compare the merit pay and non-merit pay schools on an equal basis, they ignore important demographic factors, they extrapolate from small samples, and worst of all, they won’t disclose the evaluation formulas they used.

But the merit pay advocates will no longer be able to freely manipulate their Little Rock experiment, now that the recent school board elections have reversed the power dynamic and isolated their puppet, Superintendent Brooks. That explains their retreat to Rogers, where professors from the Education Reform department were already assisting the Rogers school district with its federal grant proposal for funds to support the new merit pay program.

Since it’s clear that Arkansas is the intended petri dish for further public merit pay experiments funded by private interests, this is a good time to set some clear parameters for how these and other proposed reforms are offered a trial in the public schools.

At the very least, state regulations should require disclosure of the funding source, public consultation with teachers and administrators, open hearings and approval by the elected school board, a comprehensive test sampling that encompasses the full range of student demographics, and a truly objective analysis of the results.

It’s unfortunate that we have been reduced to begging for a fair, democratic process in our own public schools. Isn’t it ironic that a program based on merit would bend over backwards to avoid a real test?

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