Friday, November 05, 2010

Merit Pay & Students

One of the silver bullets proposed to fix education (so the people actually running it don't have to) is "merit pay" for teachers. This "plan" assumes that teachers with the best results should get the most money. This makes some sense in the oversimplified world where free-market solutions are misunderstood.

Of course, this plan basically accepts that some teachers are unworthy of real paychecks, and that all classrooms and school administrations are considered equal. Of course, we don't live in Utopia, so those factors come into play.

Chris McCreigt at Beyond the Trestle asks some other interesting questions:

Indeed, how would the relationship between teacher and student be changed when the student realized that his/her performance translated into the teacher's income? ("Come on Timmy, Mrs. Adams wants to eat peanut butter AND jelly this week!!!") Does the teacher become the manager and the children become the employees? Can the students go on strike? Can the teacher fire a student?

This is one thing I can't stand about the education issue as it is dicussed in this country. It has fallen into the underwear gnome theory of "running things like a business."

Step 1: Run schools like a business.
Step 2: ?
Step 3: Higher test scores!

The problem with this, once you dismiss the concept that most businesses fail in their first 5 years, is that school is inherently different from business. Trying to fit the round peg of school management into the square peg of utopian versions of free-market scenarios will not work. Your teachers will encounter obstacles beyond their control. Some administrations are competent where others aren't. Some systems are better funded, structurally, than others. Students cannot be "fired," even if some schools will attempt to do so.

And unlike businesses, where consumers can choose to participate in a market, parents cannot choose to unhave their school aged children. Those kids still have to go to school, whether a "good" school nearby is available or affordable.

That's why it might be a good thing to have "market" and "school choice." (It sure sells well, in theory.) But those choices should be based on school focus, such as choosing a school that focuses on creative arts, science & math, college prep or vocational prep. I can dig that. However, there should not be a market or choice based on basic school competency. And make no mistake, that's what we're selling now.

All schools should be held to standards of excellence and rigor by the governments (read populations) that make decisions for them. And I've got a way to structure a working merit pay system: pay teachers based on education and experience and time-on-the-job, like we do in most fields, and train your administrators in human resources management. That way, the folks in charge can manage their human resources, identify good teachers for promotion, identify moderate teachers for development and identify consistently underperforming teachers for dismissal.



patsbrother said...

While I did not read this, I did notice a reference to the underwear gnomes. Why is it that we seem to be the only people who refer to the underwear gnomes as a legitimate reference to flaws in the logic of others' arguments? Congrats!

Dante said...

Merit pay is a terrible idea. No proposed implementation I've seen even mirrors how the free market works. The only way I could see merit pay even being reasonable is if we had competent managers installed in the school system who could assess a teacher's ability and effort teaching. Then that manager could negotiate starting salary and raises with that teacher. No business in their right mind would standardize salary across the board despite teaching position and then leave raise decisions up to an external standardized test board.

But alas it doesn't matter because competent managers wouldn't take the job for what they're likely to pay for it. Instead we'd get incompetent managers who would hand out raises to those who are connected in government (and I'll start reading that as populations when the government starts acting like they're representing those populations, thank you very much).

A more accurate Underwear Gnome analogy would be:
1. Run schools like someone who has never actually worked for a business before thinks a business operates.
2. ?? (because they don't know what the fuck they're doing)
3. Higher test scores!

As a final thought, the only industry I see work at all similar to the way merit pay is proposed is sales. I sure as hell don't want Glengarry Glenn Ross teaching my kids.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Run schools like someone who has never actually worked for a business before thinks a business operates.


I'll start reading that as populations when the government starts acting like they're representing those populations

Hence my long agitation for more people participating in their local governments. Governments will start acting like they're representing populations when populations begin to demand better of them.