It’s More Complicated Than That…

Education policy tends to be a staple discussion item in our family. My sister has headed the art program at Sycamore School for the past quarter-century and written several well-received books on arts pedagogy. Our daughter served three terms on the IPS school board, took a “time out” to work with education policy organizations, and was recently re-elected.

Family get-togethers, as you might imagine, focus a lot on education. If there is one thing I’ve learned during these (sometimes interminable) discussions, it’s that education in a highly diverse democracy is complicated–and that folks with the simple answers aren’t helping. (Yes, Governor Pence, that most definitely includes you.)

My sister recently shared a post from Edutopia, a respected education website, that goes a long way toward explaining why those simple answers are so often wrong answers. The author consults the available research to debunk 8 myths that undermine effectiveness–widely-held beliefs that are belied by the available evidence. (Class size really does matter. So does money. Etc.)

The entire post is worth a read, but one myth he explores–and debunks–is one that I admittedly had harbored: merit pay.

Paying more effective teachers more just seems like a no-brainer. The devil, as the author points out, is in the details.

The full argument is that merit pay is a good way to increase teacher performance, because teachers should be evaluated on the basis of student performance, and rewarding or punishing schools for student performance will improve our nation’s schools. However, evidence suggests that competition between teachers is counterproductive and interferes with collaboration. Measuring teacher effectiveness is very difficult, and no simple measures effectively do this. There is no evidence that merit pay correlates with improved student achievement, but there is strong evidence that basing teacher salaries on student performance is counterproductive and ethically wrong — it frequently punishes teachers and schools for socioeconomic factors over which they have no control.

Crap. Back to the drawing board…


  1. I’ll admit that I have very little first hand experience on the delivery side of education. A little college adjunct experience. But I do have some experience in the field of evaluating performance and merit pay. That experience says that with knowledge jobs it’s always an imperfect and difficult task. Possible and necessary over the long run but clumsy in the short term and always hard on relationships.

    So perhaps this discussion should start with, are there more and less effective educators? My experience on the receiving end is, most definitely. What then are examples in my life of better ones? I can think of a few. What made them better? Now the going gets tougher.

    But the tough going is inspired by my first hand experience that says taking on the tough task is definitely worthwhile because everyone benefits in the long run if superior performance gets rewarded: the students, the better teachers and the teachers still striving for better.

    So, to me, the question should be, what is the most effective process that we can think of to recognize superior teaching? That begins with what do we mean when we say superior teaching? What is different about the student body in the classroom of more effective teachers?

    I won’t speculate but I’d love to participate in discussions with others about that topic. Who were the teachers that made the biggest dent in our natural ignorance and how were they different from average? Surely highly variable opinions in such a discussion would coalesce around some common ideas if effectively moderated.

    Then what process could gather such insight, and what rewards based on that would inspire the average to better?

    Come to think of it, isn’t that what more effective teachers do with their students?

  2. The Smithsonian Magazine had an excellent article on Education in Finland –

    The Finish School System philosophy is based on cooperation which flies in the face of our Competition Model.

    Last night I was watching a Program on the Space Program. The overwhelming group represented is white males. 45 Years after Neil Armstrong African-Americans and Woman have still not landed in the Space Program in significant numbers. I suppose part of the problem is the enormous cost of Higher Education here in the USA.

  3. There is so much more than educating students that makes good teachers. I remember my 5th grade Social Studies teacher, Mrs. Goodus, who made each of us personally a part of what we were learning. I also remember the school music teacher, named Peggy Lee, who forced us to sing in front of class no matter how bad we were or how much we hated being embarrassed – I still sing in the key of R. My Biology teacher at Tech High School, Mr. G.K. Barr, remains my favorite. He instilled the desire to learn and treated us as people, not chldren. We could always talk to him outside of class; he seemed to be aware if we were troubled on any level. On the distaff side I remember my English Grammar teacher at Tech, Jean Wells, who responded that my question was stupid and I was the dumbest student she had ever taught. I still do not sing even living alone and grammar rules still confuse me. There are the many teachers locally who ignore and allow bullying to continue in public and private schools; no matter if their ability to teach students results in high grade averages – they should not be paid more than the teachers who tend to their students on all levels because they care.

    The politicing, cat-fighting, back-biting battle in this Department of Education does not instill trust in the system on any level. Trust by parents, students and the entire education system is lacking and must be addressed as well as who gets paid how much and why.

  4. The best teachers I had, in both public and private schools, were teachers who challenged me constantly, never letting me rest on my laurels. Each of those teachers had a unique teaching style that reflected who they were and the students they taught. The worst teachers I had were those who were there because it was a job and the attitude showed.
    I remember science experiments, math competitions, having books read aloud to the class as a reward for working cooperatively to complete classroom assignments, diagramming sentences the first thing every class period, spot quizzes to sharpen our focus and lots of other strategies that would probably seem antiquated today, but worked remarkably well for classrooms with high student/ teacher ratios by today’s standards. None of my good teachers belittled or embarrassed their students nor did they allow other students to behave that way.

    Long ago I was struck by the teaching strategy that Mr. Thackeray used in “To Sir With Love.” He taught the students (and himself) to understand that respect for themselves and each other is the foundation of education.

    Unfortunately, we seem to have lost that respect priority. Too many people, from politicians to parents, spend a lot of time criticizing and demeaning teachers and teaching. The teachers who demand respect for and from the students themselves are constantly told that they are doing it wrong and must conform to a model that might work in some businesses but in a classroom.

    Teachers and students seldom are aware of the lessons that will stick for a lifetime. Children live in the moment. Teachers have the difficult job of teaching life skills and knowledge that their students cannot imagine ever having to use. It is one of the hardest jobs there is. Our society does not value that work as it should. Too bad that there is not a test that shows what lessons are most valuable for each student’s future. Testing of the kind we are using now is too easily manipulated to prove whatever point the policy drivers want to make. How do any of us know what the future will mean in terms of job skills? How we learn to think, problem solve and react flexibly to life and work challenges is much more important to the our future.

    The pettiness and power struggles to control the process are destroying one of the most important pillars of our country. Public education, equal education opportunity for all, is what works best. Private and for profit education for those with the resources to buy is not the answer and never has been. Ignorance and greed (money/power) are the roots of all evil. When you combine the two, it is likely a fatal mistake.

  5. I think the hard core insistence on “merit pay” in schools is ultimate based on fear that, if it is accepted that the situation is different here, other situations might also be found to be different.

  6. Sharing and competing are polar opposites. How many successful companies give away their trade secrets and marketing strategies to their competitors for market share?
    Likewise, sharing and replicating best practices stops with competition for the few merit raises awarded in teacher merit pay schemes.

    If we want all teachers to be effective, they all deserve professional pay. If they are ineffective and can’t or won’t improve, they shouldn’t be teachers.

    Former State Supt. Tony Bennett did a doctoral dissertation on Indiana’s teacher dismissal (tenure) law. He surveyed school administrators state-wide to ask if the law made it difficult to dismiss ineffective teachers and if the law was so cumbersome that it discouraged them from even trying. Administrators responded overwhelmingly that the process to dismiss teachers wasn’t difficult and didn’t discourage them from dismissing ineffective teachers. Mr. Bennett dismissed those results in the dissertation and stated his opposition to the law nevertheless.

    A few years later when he was State Supt., Supt. Bennett proposed a law that denied raises to approximately half the teachers the law perceived to be ineffective so that raises would be given only to effective and highly effective teachers. Notably, Glenda Ritz asked the Senate Education Chairman asked why – if ineffective teachers couldn’t or wouldn’t improve – should schools retain them at all. Shouldn’t management assemble school teams where ALL teachers are effective?

    Effective principals lobbied legislators to say they had done exactly that and that all their teachers deserved much higher pay. One such principal from a Lafayette school where nearly all students were on free and reduced lunch reported that nearly 90% of her students passed I-STEP. Even so, the new evaluation system based on the new law supported by Supt. Bennett categorized ALL her teachers as ineffective and therefore ineligible for pay raises. She said the state will never be better able than she to know which of her teachers are effective, but just to be clear, she doesn’t tolerate ineffectiveness.

  7. Now that I’m no longer under contract with IPS, any IN Public School Corporation, or any other out-of-state public school district, I’ll point out that the Indiana Department of Education/the IN BOE, and the individual IN School Districts are woefully behind in failing to avail themselves of a grand opportunity to deal/handle with the requisite hard documentation naturally expected from the taxpayers before providing any ‘merit pay’ or whatever the term du jour is current in Indiana and more specifically the reformers in education circles. As an aside, it’s entirely possible that education reformers are missing a piece in growing and rewarding their ‘great’ teachers, with ‘great’ being an overused adjective and an identifying keyword among the reformers across the nation.

    I hear absolutely nothing about the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards where after following an extremely and uber rigorous program in a content area and ultimately passing the series of requisite reviews, both on-site and via comprehensive written reviews, a teacher can become a National Board Certified Teacher which grants their having their teaching license accepted in all US states and abroad without question. Glenda Ritz, IN Supt of Instruction, is one of a handful of Indiana educators who is National Board Certified.

    Perhaps this is a loose analogy but think about selecting a surgeon for an upcoming surgery, would you look for the Board Certified Surgeon in a particular area of medicine or would you just settle for a medical doctor whose yellow page advertisement lists him/her as a Surgeon. It’s the same with teachers. A National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) has demonstrated an excellence in instructional skills and in the successful delivery of instruction in a particular content area.

    Here’s the link to the NBCT state listings of numbers of Board Certified Teachers. In South Carolina, where my older son, of the Church of the Fuzzy Bunny saga, is a NBCT in addition to having an undergrad and graduate degree in his content area. The State of SC awards each NBCT public school teacher with an annual stipend (based upon merit) of $5000 on top of their District’s Pay Scale where years of experience and levels of post-graduate work are also observed.

    By the way, I believe the last time I checked the IPS Salary Schedule that a measly $500 was promised to any Board Certified Teacher.

  8. Republicans are pushing to pass a bill to appoint, rather than elect, the Superintendent of Education only because Glenda Ritz is a Democrat. They are probably not even aware of her qualifications, only her politics. They are not interested in educating students in this city; only making headlines and establishing a reputation for having the highest number of charter schools and voucher students in the country. The GOP is all about QUANTITY – not QUALITY – on all issues. They block any and all action to improve socioeconomics for the constituents who elect them to office; keeping the public uneducated is far more beneficial for the GOP. The uneducated believe their Bible thumping platform and cannot see the wolves in sheep’s clothing who keep them at the bottom of the caste system evolving in this state and this country. They have twisted and overruled the Constitution and the Amendments at state and federal levels; what makes you think they will heed laws, rules, regulations and ordinances regarding state education? Do you believe it was the educated children of educated parents involved in the Mall Brawl at Castleton shopping center? Our future has always depended on the youth of this country who were to be our future leaders. Right now, that is a frightening thought because too many are not being educated – imagine being governed by worse then we have been subjected to during the past decade due to GOP control, even with a Democrat in the White House.

  9. There is a great deal of research that will give specific guidance on what works and what doesn’t in education. Anyone (including legislators) who takes a subject seriously will consult that research, because they will know that their decisions are so very critical and have so many consequences. The problem is that so many of these ideology-driven legislators believe that their ideology is sufficient and that they don’t need to know any more. If they are accountants, they think that all you have to do is add up numbers, any numbers, and then reward the ones with the highest numbers, because it’s all a matter of reward and punishment. (I wonder how much you have to punish children for them to want to learn.) The same for businessmen who think that because they were elected, they now have been gifted with the wisdom and knowledge to make the right decision. Right this way, please, to disaster, along Fool’s Road.

  10. I think that if we want all teachers to be effective, then they all deserve a higher pay, however if they are ineffective and can’t or won’t improve, then they shouldn’t be teachers.

  11. IU Campuses including IUPUI, the IU School of Medicine and the IU School of Dentistry seem to do a good job of providing merit pay based upon hard documentation entered and submitted in each Faculty member’s FAR (Faculty Annual Review) where it can be requested and accessed by a Merit Review Committee in the particular Faculty member’s Department including the Dept Dean. In other words, not every DDS/DMD (same degree based upon the state issuing the degree) who is under contract with IUSD earns the same salary even if they’ve been there for the same number of years. Perhaps Sheila completes the same FAR on her computer and submits it electronically.

    Included in this annual review are inquiries about: 1) Honors and Awards recognized by the IU Provost Office and Fellowships received, 2) Publications that may be listed for more than one year if they span multiple reporting years, 3) Grants that are sourced from the IU Contracts and Grants division and being the Principal Investigator on a Grant is even better, 4) Creative Activities including activities associated with the creative arts including theatrical, musical, and any number of performance type activities, 5) Professional Development and Meetings which includes opportunities to document all invited talks or papers, all contributed papers, serving as a Panel Chair, a Discussant on a Panel, or even an Attendee at a meeting, a seminar, or a colloquia, and the usual Professional Development activities for training or certification for State Licensing requirements which must be live, not Online (continuing education credit hours in your particular field), 5) Courses Taught which includes Course Catalog Number and number of students enrolled in each course and number of hours spent on instruction for each class, 6) Teaching Activities which are separate for courses taught and includes documented evidence of course development, instructional developments, and especially evidence of student engagement activities (extremely important) that run the gamut of personal research, dissertation committee, thesis committee, fieldwork, and mentoring students via an approved mentoring program, 7) Service Activities related to your department, your school, the university, professional organizations, and community organizations. Volunteer work that engages the community and includes a diversity component are especially important and viewed favorably by the Merit Review Committee.

    In conclusion, there’s no reason our K-12 Indiana Schools cannot design and implement a similar Annual Review for each certified educator in the State. It’s nonpartisan, it’s not subjective, and it’s a equitable form to reward professional K-12 educators who go above and beyond the normal contract requirements. I was under contract as a certified educator in a large public school district (70,000 students) on the southeastern seacoast that had a similar version of the Annual Review concept where educators could receive a merit bonus of $2000 annually for completing a similar review form with hard evidence (they called the evidence ‘artifacts’) that was reviewed in HR with the educator’s name removed before the review to prevent claims of favor granting.

  12. Barbara, I don’t think you read Sheila’s article and her quotation that “There is no evidence that merit pay correlates with improved student achievement, but there is strong evidence that basing teacher salaries on student performance is counterproductive and ethically wrong”. Aside from that, I suspect that there are some substantive differences between the students at a medical school and K-12 students that would make it difficult to transfer medical school experience.

  13. Merit based pay, in my experience, is often arbitrary and capricious. I did teach (in adult ed) where a bonus was awarded to the top rated teacher (based on student evaluations). I was usually second, but sometimes won the bonus. It made no difference to me. I taught to make a difference in the students lives.

    At higher levels, things like publications, conferences and grants play a larger role. In elementary and secondary school, those don’t factor in. At those levels, differential pay, especially when the total pot of money is small and limited, leads to resentment, and the worst aspects of competition.

    There is this silly idea that competition is the best and most “natural” condition because “survival of the fittest” is the law of nature. The problem is that many times it is collaboration that makes for the “fittest”. The best, happiest, and most productive work experiences I have had in my life were in atmospheres of collaboration.

    Yes, there are better and worse teachers, but “merit pay” isn’t going to change the situation. I may make matters worse.

    As an additional anecdote on motivation, in a previous job, I was given an assistant and told that he was lazy because he was a civil servant and there was nothing I could do to motivate him. It was suggested that I order him around because he could be fired for disregarding a direct order. Instead, I took that collaborative attitude. We were a team, even if I had the PhD and he didn’t. He understood what we were trying to accomplish, and amazingly, he even volunteered to work late when the work required it. I didn’t detect one iota of “laziness”. I find that collaboration leads to increased productivity in most situations.

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