Chicago Merit Pay Program Was Not Uniquely Flawed

4 06 2010

Maybe it was the policy postures of Clinton era–I don’t know–but for some reason, this mythology that all social problems can be solved through the awesome force of “markets” and a business ethos has been wholly absorbed by liberals, particularly big city liberals. We can all agree that capitalism has created an awesome amount of wealth and raised the quality of life for many people. Isn’t that enough? Do we have to admit the profit motive and corporate governance to every area of human relations? Does it mean corporate CEOs know the solutions to all our problems? Must we be thankful, rather than terrified, that JP Morgan Chase is trying to underwrite our schools?
The little local kerfuffle over the failure of Chicago’s pilot teacher merit pay program is another example of petty liberals assuming “seriousness” by just accepting that a corporate approach can solve social problems if only properly designed. Can’t it be that some things aren’t like profit-seeking entities, and therefore those models can’t be transposed onto them? Isn’t it possible that some things we as a society want are going to be expensive, big, and not anything like, say, Wal-Mart?

The fact is, Chicago’s merit pay experiment failed not because of some illicit design flaw, but because pay for performance for teachers is fundamentally flawed, from its head to its toes. It’s nothing new. It’s been tried since the 18th Century–yes, the 18th Century–and has failed fairly consistently. In fact as cited in that report, the sole serviceable model–the one in Denver–is even low-rated by its supporters in that school system, who admit that lots of other expensive things are required for even modest improvements.
Here’s Cottrell’s take:


Maybe it was the policy postures of Clinton era–I don’t know–but for some reason, this mythology that all social problems can be solved through the awesome force of “markets” and a business ethos has been wholly absorbed by liberals, particularly big city liberals. We can all agree that capitalism has created an awesome amount of wealth and raised the quality of life for many people. Isn’t that enough? Do we have to admit the profit motive and corporate governance to every area of human relations? Does it mean corporate CEOs know the solutions to all our problems? Must we be thankful, rather than terrified, that JP Morgan Chase is trying to underwrite our schools?
The little local kerfuffle over the failure of Chicago’s pilot teacher merit pay program is another example of petty liberals assuming “seriousness” by just accepting that a corporate approach can solve social problems if only properly designed. Can’t it be that some things aren’t like profit-seeking entities, and therefore those models can’t be transposed onto them? Isn’t it possible that some things we as a society want are going to be expensive, big, and not anything like, say, Wal-Mart?
The fact is, Chicago’s merit pay experiment failed not because of some illicit design flaw, but because pay for performance for teachers is fundamentally flawed, from its head to its toes. It’s nothing new. It’s been tried since the 18th Century–yes, the 18th Century–and has failed fairly consistently. In fact as cited in that report, the sole serviceable model–the one in Denver–is even low-rated by its supporters in that school system, who admit that lots of other expensive things are required for even modest improvements.
Here’s Cottrell’s take:

I was disappointed too, until I got to the second page of the Tribune article on the study, released Tuesday. Take a look at these details:

Technical difficulties prevented linking student test scores to individual teachers. That meant assessments focused instead on the entire school’s performance in the first year and across individual grade levels in the second year. In addition, average bonuses ended up being about half of what teachers were expected to get.

Are you kidding me here? The bonuses were not linked to their individual results, but to the results as a school or grade level? And they didn’t even get all the money that was promised?

Merit pay isn’t the problem. It’s this pilot program that was a joke.

Cottrell’s concerns are echoed elsewhere in the blogosphere as linked above, but while certainly well intentioned and reasonable they’re unfounded. Actually, the Trib reporter undersold the problem–the phrase “technical difficulties” makes it seem like they couldn’t get an Excel spreadsheet formula to work and just gave up. In fact, the problem is that there is no real way–that wouldn’t be wildly expensive and essentially defeat the purpose of the program–to link individual children’s test scores to individual teachers, particularly past the early elementary levels of education. Academics have literally spent lifetimes on the matter and never come up with anything truly workable. Don’t take it from me:

But does pay for performance really work? According to many experts, the answer is a resounding no — especially when teacher ability is measured solely or primarily on student scores on standardized tests.

“There has never been any research that shows that this works, although it’s very fashionable to think that it should work,” says Richard Rothstein, the former education columnist at The New York Times and the author of a number of books on education, including Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right.

“When it comes to the sexy reform du jour — basing teachers’ pay on student performance — the research doesn’t support it at all,” concurs Bella Rosenberg, Ed.M.’72, an independent education consultant based in Washington, D.C., who worked for more than 20 years for the American Federation of Teachers. This year, Rosenberg did a project that required her to read “just about every piece of research available on this, including from the advocates,” she says. She found no evidence that pay for performance improves education. “It’s not there — it’s just not there,” she says.

Indeed, since the idea of pay for performance first was born, in the 18th century, it has failed every time it’s been tried, says Kitty Boles, Ed.D.’91, a senior lecturer at the Ed School. As early as 1710, in England, teachers were paid based on their students’ test scores in reading, writing, and arithmetic. But problems with this approach quickly became apparent, she says. The curriculum narrowed as arts and science classes were no longer taught. Teachers focused on drills aimed at improving test scores, and “teaching to the test” was born. There were even scandals with teachers faking test scores. For these reasons, pay for performance — also known as merit pay — was abandoned. Over the past three centuries, it has been resurrected numerous times, and in each instance, Boles says, it has failed to improve education and was eventually dropped. This cycle has been repeated each time a merit pay system has been launched, including one championed by President Richard Nixon but declared a failure not long afterwards, Boles says.

This pilot program failed because student performance merit pay, like alchemy or phrenology, will not work. It is based on wrong assumptions. Pay-for-performance in education will not work. It is based on no data. It based almost wholly on an attitude–that “free market” “data driven” solutions can solve every problem. Which, as the RAND Corporation proved at the cost of thousands of lives in New York City, is not true.

First, there is the question of motivation. Merit pay supporters must not stop to wonder why a 5%-10% bonus would motivate teachers to finally do that magical thing they aren’t doing currently. Or, they must assume that a significant number of teachers are so lazy, that even though they could do some magical thing that would improve their students’ performances, they just don’t because they want $2,000.

Teachers don’t teach for money. No matter what market fundamentalists try to worm into the mainstream through their liberal “school reform” allies, teachers are not rich. They don’t make huge salaries. Their jobs are not comfy. They spend as much time with your kids as you do, times 30 (soon 35!). Offering them slight increases in pay will not magically give them the skills to improve. They need classroom mentorship, observation by master teachers, and communities integrated into school management–all expensive and democratic things that JP Morgan Chase isn’t interested if it’s going to make a profit on the Education Industry the private sector has been salivating over for generations.

Secondly, there is no way to fairly measure the performance you’re going to dole out bonuses on. Your teaching staff is not the sales team down at Al Piemonte Ford for god’s sake. If we’re ever going to reform education we need to take a deep breath and shake off this nonsense that education is a commodity that a market can rationally distribute. This is what has plagued health care for 60 years. It’s just not. Abandon all hope, ye free marketeers who enter here. Not the same. Not analogous. No, no, no. And the more liberals play along and accept that premise, the more and more ground they’re going to cede to the privatizers. The testing regime our schools are plagued with rob children of an education. Teachers aren’t car salesman: they can’t be judged by a metric like gross sales, or month-on-month sale improvements, or sales-per-client-contact. Education isn’t cars measurable in volume.

Public schools today are not the same as public schools even ten years ago because of No Child Left Behind. It’s a whole different ball game. Any junior-level social science major could tell you that once a population becomes aware of the test by which they’re being evaluated, the test becomes worthless. Why? Because you’re no longer evaluating something distinct, you’re evaluating the ability of the population to game the test. Is that “getting an education”? It absolutely is not. It is teachers, under pressure from education bureaucrats–in Chicago’s case, that includes exactly 0 educators–in turn pressuring children to absorb the rote lessons found in test prep materials purchased from for-profit testing companies. Think about the incentive system you’re creating. The merit pay concept is fully an import from corporate America. With the incentive is an implied disincentive. Think Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. Is that what we want? Teachers intensely pursuing bonuses based on test preparation courses, and being threatened with steak knives if they fail?

The good news is you’re fired. The bad news, the next generation of Americans only know how to fill out Scantrons.

Doesn’t it stand to reason that if this merit pay system were universal, that some teachers would say, “Well, I don’t really need the $2,000 because my spouse is well-off. So screw the kids, I won’t do the magic thing.” Introducing this pay-for-testing-performance model is a backdoor way to turn education upside down.

Of course, none of this is happening in the highly-unionized, charter-school-free, wholly public, voucher-less, well-performing suburban school districts, right? Oh, you forgot about those? Remember them? The ones we never consider instituting these programs on? Where for some reason the highly-paid union teachers don’t need bonus incentives to do their jobs? Why is that? Objectively better human beings? Could it have something to do with the objective, verifiable, indisputable fact that family income is basically the only reliable determinant of student success? As long as we have ghettoized low-income communities, we will have poorly performing schools there. Inviting JP Morgan Chase to turn a buck there won’t help anything. It’ll just make the rich richer while taking away yet another of the few jobs available to working class people that provides some security and quality of life (i.e., public sector teaching). In poor neighborhoods, how do you think the kids of teachers do as opposed to the kids of, say, Wal-Mart greeters?

To my liberal friends: please, stop and think about this “reform”. Those same financiers and think tanks urging you to be “serious” and consider corporate solutions to education problems are the ones who argue with a straight face that we need to lower the wages of working people. Ask any of Illinois’ great school voucher and charter proselytizers, like the vultures as the Illinois Policy Institute, their position on the minimum wage. Or Equal Pay for Equal Work for women (who are disproportionately poor). It seems like any time there is a social movement to provide better paying and more secure jobs, they are there saying you should get on your knees and bury your face in the munificent laps of almighty Job Creators, their term du-jour for your bosses.

A longitudinal study was able to verifiably link increases in family income to improvements in scores specifically by using the Earned Income Tax Credit. Ask the Illinois Policy Institute what they think about the refundable EITC.

These are not your allies. They do not have the best interest of public education in mind. Their only fealty is to their free market ideology. I don’t doubt that many of them honestly believe that privatizing education and subjecting it to market forces will improve it, but that wacky belief and a nickel won’t get you a cafeteria lunch, much less better schools.


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