Columns » Ernest Dumas

The myth of merit pay

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The oldest and most persistent failure in the long history of school experimentation is back, and this time it takes a form that is sure to wreak more havoc with children than ever.

Despite all its demonstrated failures, politicians hatch the idea of merit pay for teachers every couple of generations because the simple idea is so appealing: You pay a person based on a good measurement of the quality of his or her work. What could be wrong with that? That’s the way they do it in the business world, including private education, isn’t it?

Well, no, it’s not, especially not in private and parochial schools, and not even in big corporations like Wal-Mart that are promoting it as the way to raise student achievement. The Wal-Mart family, which proposes to pay for raises for selected Little Rock teachers whose students do well on standardized tests, would never do such a thing with its own employees. Wal-Mart has an incentive-pay plan for employees based on team results, not individuals, and people are compelled to keep the raises secret, for obvious reasons. You can’t do that in the public schools, where everything but individual student records must be public.

Republicans hungry for ideas that will appeal to angry voters — governors from Schwarzenegger of California to Perry of Texas, Huckabee of Arkansas and Romney of Massachusetts and (who else?) President Bush — have jumped on the idea of linking raises or bonuses for teachers to standardized test scores. Huckabee plans to ask the legislature at a special session soon to enact a merit-pay plan based on test scores, which he has yet to devise.

It is a winner politically because it is supposed to punish and maybe even bust teacher unions, which are supposed to be responsible for the current system of uniform teacher pay based on experience, level of education and certified teaching skills. Teacher unions, of course, have nothing to do with the uniform pay system. That was how teachers were paid in Arkansas long before the first union contract was ever negotiated. Only five school districts out of 254 in Arkansas, in fact, negotiate pay schedules with a teachers union, but the teachers union is the whipping boy for every failing of public education. Read almost any editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about education.

Performance or merit pay is not a bold new idea. They first tried it in England 300 years ago. Pay was tied to students’ scores on tests in reading, writing and arithmetic. The financial rewards and penalties preoccupied the schools so that in the end the curriculum narrowed and students only studied the basics on which they could be tested. Science, art and music education were abandoned. Rote drills — what we now call teaching the test — became the standard. So did cheating and falsifying records.

Art, music, language and many science and other non-basics teachers will be left out of pay schemes based on high-stakes tests.

The last merit-pay fad was in the 1970s, when several states experimented with elaborate plans to evaluate teachers on some objective scale when delivering annual raises. The results were so chaotic and dispiriting that nearly all the schools abandoned the plans.

The idea is resurrected now not as a way to be fair to teachers and reward those who are worthy but to get students to learn more. The competition for the limited money for salaries is supposed to force lazy and uncaring teachers to be better teachers with the result that their students will learn more. The history has tended to be the opposite, and these schemes are sure to be even worse.

How to measure good teaching is the problem. Even a champion of merit pay like Dr. Jay P. Greene, the chair of the new Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, recognizes that you can’t fairly measure it by a single test score or even by beginning and end tests that measure the amount of education added during the year because every class is different.

Every bit of research on student achievement has concluded that family income and education levels are the biggest predictors of student achievement. The composition of advantaged and disadvantaged children differs sharply from one school to another and even in classrooms within a school.

Greene concocted an elaborate way of measuring those and other factors in computing the effectiveness of each teacher. His measurement of effective teaching in Arkansas classrooms last year conceivably could even be reasonably accurate, but his results ran so counter to convention that neither Huckabee nor the legislature would ever embrace it. The worst schools in the state by standard measurements turned out to be the sites of the most effective teaching.

Basing pay on a quantitative standard is done almost nowhere in the business or professional world — unless you count the bonuses for pumping up stock prices or the number of bogus contracts at Enron, or else the pay for itinerant berry pickers. But it is supposed to be just the thing for the people who educate your children?

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