Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Merit Pay For Teachers

This is what Obama has proposed today, together with longer school days and charter schools:

President Barack Obama called for tying teachers' pay to student performance and expanding innovative charter schools Tuesday, embracing ideas that have provoked hostility from members of teachers unions.

He also suggested longer school days — and years — to help American children compete in the world.

I'm in total agreement about the longer school days and years, for several reasons, including the fact that children in many countries do spend more time studying and that the school days and years here are no longer very well matched with the working lives of the children's parents. I also want to get more art, music and similar creative things back into schools and the only way that might happen is through longer school days. It could be that I just feel bitter because my school days were really long and that I want revenge. Who knows?

The charter school bit is more problematic, because it's not clear that charter schools necessarily do better than normal schools.

The merit pay idea is problematic in a different way: It's very hard to define the output of a teacher in an objective way and that's what we need if we wish to reward merit fairly. I imagine that merit pay might be used as a power tool in some schools in the absence of such fairness.

The problem in measuring teacher output has to do with the way that output is produced: with the inputs of both the student, the teacher and the teaching environment. An excellent teacher could have bad outcome measurements if she or he taught at a school with no resources and lots of poorly prepared students who don't want to learn. Think of the output of a physician and you might spot some similar problems.

Why is nobody proposing that we pay physicians on the basis of merit, hmh? Could it be that physician pay is already very good? What does good salary produce in this context? More people with great skills entering the field? Do the countries which lead the international education statistics use something like shitty salaries and then merit pay? Or do they pay their teachers well to begin with?

None of this means that we couldn't introduce a merit pay system. But it needs to take into account those other factors: how well or poorly the children are prepared, what their homes are like, how much money the school system has and so on. And if teacher pay, on average, is not rising, introducing merit pay is just introducing another testing hurdle for people who consider going into the field, a hurdle they might not pass. That means that the expected pay in the field would look even worse and the outcome would be fewer and fewer people going into teaching.