Sunday, November 21, 2010

Merit pay may not bring positive results

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 21 November 2010

TERRE HAUTE — Gov. Daniels gets what he wants. He wanted to change the time in Indiana; no one talks about repeal. He wanted to lease Indiana roads for badly needed cash and he did it. He has set more land aside for conservation than probably any Indiana governor and no one criticized him. When he came into office six years ago, he faced a budget shortfall and fixed it without a tax increase (although he did suggest one, remember?). He pushed for a constitutional amendment on property tax caps and got it. And now, perhaps his final accomplishment before he sets his sights on a presidential run, is to fix Indiana schools.

His plan is simple. Use money to motivate teachers to do a better job and tie student academic performance to teacher pay and continued employment. What could be simpler?

I have seen “merit” pay up and close. I am not sure it changes anyone’s behavior. Why? Among many reasons, the amount of money is key. Gov. Daniels isn’t looking to add money to education, quite the opposite. That is why he pursues unproven educational reforms but doesn’t make full-day kindergarten, a proven means to improve student academic performance, a priority.

Pay for performance works when individuals can alter behavior that directly influences the measured outcomes. For example, sales professionals make more phone calls, contact more people, and result in more sales and more commissions. What behaviors do teachers need to do more of, or change, to increase student academic performance? Are there evidence-based practices that point the direction?

Learning theory is pretty straightforward: time on task impacts learning. So, maybe teachers will assign more homework. If the students don’t do the work (and parents complain about the amount), then student performance doesn’t improve and teachers won’t get paid for their performance.

Teachers are professionals, like lawyers, doctors, nurses, clergy, and accountants. Professional norms control their behavior. And like other professional groups, talent and skill differ across individuals. The “best” lawyers, however, are not necessarily the highest paid. Why would a highly paid lawyer accept a much lower paid position as a judge? Indeed, a judge is a civil servant while most lawyers are in private practice; they do it, in part, because of the honor.

Everyone cannot have the “best” doctor, lawyer, nurse, priest or accountant. Through training and professional norms, a minimum performance standard is established. No, such systems are not perfect and people in such professions can change, they can “burn out.” Are there bad doctors, nurses, lawyers, priests and accountants? Yes and there are “bad” teachers and there has to be a way to deal with those low performers.

When I directed the Sociology Research Lab, I compensated callers two different ways. One paid them for performance, the other was to pay by the hour. When callers were compensated based solely on performance, I found I had a lot of “cheating.” Callers would pretend to call and just answer the questions themselves. It was easy to spot these and remove those interviews from the data set. Others, who were paid by the hour, didn’t cheat. Some were phenomenal. They completed interviews at two to three times the rate of others. I established a reasonable quota of completed interviews per hour. Those who couldn’t make that quota usually quit. A few I had to let go because they were “too expensive.”

I used the first system to train and to gauge the work ethics and habits of callers. The “good” ones were invited to move to an hourly pay system. This system worked because I could establish and easily measure outcomes and establish standards.

How many points on standardized tests should be adequate to keep a new teacher employed? If those benchmarks are not reasonable or if they are vague or unstated, those who are subject to them will not have confidence in them, “cheating” will occur, and cynicism will grow.

I applaud Gov. Daniels for trying to fix education. I suggest he change the teacher retirement system so that burned-out teachers don’t feel handcuffed to a system that only rewards extremely long service. Push for full-day kindergarten. And quit bashing teachers or the most idealistic will instead choose sales, instead of teaching. Continued bashing of teachers will stigmatize the profession and eventually those who make the best teachers will turn away.

Editor’s note: Steiger is married to a public school teacher.

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