Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Merit pay just doesn't excite me

Well, it seems like just about everyone else has blogged about Minnesota's merit pay plan for teachers, so since I'm from Minnesota, I suppose I should say something about it, too. The article that so many are blogging about appeared in the New York Times a few days ago. One reason it has taken me this long to do a post on it is that I wasn't aware of it until I checked out Education Wonks the next day. But another reason is that merit pay just doesn't excite me that much.

I want to make it clear that I'm not against merit pay. I understand the valid concerns that some teachers have about it, but there is no perfect way for paying teachers. I doubt very much that a well-thought out merit pay system would be any more flawed than the system most of us use now.

Minnesota's merit pay plan, which is called Q-Comp was explained to our faculty at the beginning of the 2005-06 school year. It sounded very confusing to me, and it would definitely take a lot of work by a staff along with a school board to set it up. The money for Q-Comp is basically free money--teachers who qualify for it would get more money, and nobody would get less--but I think it's fair to say that a faculty would have to really want it in order to set it up. If you want to read about it, you can go to this Minnesota Department of Education website, but I'm warning you: prepare to have your eyes glaze over.

I could be wrong, but I think merit pay is overrated by many of its proponents as an incentive for teachers to do a better job. I should admit that, as of now, I am planning on retiring from my present job in two years, so there's not a lot of reason for me to see a possible merit pay system as a huge incentive. But it isn't just that. Money is nice, and it certainly does motivate, but I think it motivates some people more than others. I believe that people who go into teaching are less motivated by it than people who go into most other professions.

In many professions, when someone goes into them, it is a pretty safe assumption that the amount of money to be made is a primary concern. I worked for a life insurance company for a couple of summers when I was in my early 30s, and money was everything. All measurements were in terms of money. My manager was very motivated by the amount of money he could make, and it was assumed that everyone under him also was. But let's face it--if the amount of money you are going to make is a major concern when you choose a career, and you choose teaching, you must not be very smart.

I think my upbringing might be fairly typical of someone who ends up going into teaching. I grew up in a lower-middle class family. Both of my parents attended college, and it was drilled into me from the time I was very young that I would go to college too. But my parents also drilled into me over and over that the amount of money you end up making isn't important; it's important to do something that will make you happy. My insurance manager might have heard that from his parents, but I doubt that he heard it nearly as often as I did.

It's not that teachers aren't motivated by money at all. You can certainly see that it matters anytime a new contract is negotiated, and I'm sure that if you wave a couple thousand dollars in front of teachers, there are some who will do a better job. I just don't think it's going to make as big a difference as some of our captains of industry think.

I really believe that the way teachers are retained is a much more important factor in the motivation or lack thereof for teachers. I say that because I've seen it, and I've felt it. For at least 20 of the 33 years that I've taught, the school districts I've been a part of have been having financial problems. When that is the case, talk of which teachers are going to get the axe is always in the air. I've seen outstanding young teachers get cut, and I've seen others leave my districts and take jobs in others because they had no job security, and no matter how hard they worked or how good a job they did, they knew they couldn't get it. At the same time, I've seen some veteran teachers go into a coast mode, because they knew they were completely safe. If they were clearly the weakest links in their departments, it didn't matter because they had seniority. I hate to admit it, but on this issue, I think our captains of industry have a very good point.


Blogger CrypticLife said...

"But let's face it--if the amount of money you are going to make is a major concern when you choose a career, and you choose teaching, you must not be very smart."

This is a great quote.

I tend to agree with you that, for the reasons you suggest, money might not be the main motivating factor.

Of course, what you might get right now is a lot of people who would be great teachers, and enjoy it, who are rejecting the profession because of its lack of financial rewards. Even if it's not money motivating going into teaching, we don't want it to be a bar against entering the profession, and that might be where additional pay would have greater effect.

Money happens to be one of the easier incentives to give. It's not perfect, and the idea of merit pay isn't perfect. It may fail to reinforce for the same reasons grades fail to reinforce -- its award is probably too far removed from what you're actually trying to increase (both temporally and otherwise). It would be nice if the reinforcement could be directly and closely related to good teaching.

What do you think would motivate teachers, particularly the ones who have gotten into "coast" mode? What would make them feel good about doing their jobs as best they could?

6/21/2007 8:40 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I hope you don't think this answer is a cop-out because it's really not meant to be. The most important motivation in teaching is the reaction you get when you teach. If I understand correctly, you have done some teaching yourself, so you know how it feels when you know you're getting through to the people you are teaching--when you know what you are trying to do is working. That's a very good feeling. I've had that feeling, but during my career, I've also laid my share of eggs. That is a very bad feeling. You know when that happens that you'd better change something, or you'd better do a better job preparing, or something. In high school classes, that's particularly true, because if what you're doing isn't working, the discipline problems begin to escalate very quickly. When that happens, it is downright humiliating. I've said it before, but anyone who is a bad teacher and stays in the business has to be a masochist. So I really do believe that in teaching, more than most other jobs, the reinforcement is immediate.

The teachers who end up coasting usually aren't really bad teachers, but they've quit doing things to get better. They've quit trying to be the best they can possibly be, like so many younger teachers try to do. I really believe that the most effective incentive for them would be the knowledge that if they aren't as good as they can be--if they don't keep trying to improve, they might not have a job. I believe that's the case for most professions in private industry, and I think it should be that way for us.

6/21/2007 11:44 AM  
Anonymous Roger Sweeny said...

It seems to me that the big problem with merit pay is deciding what merit is, which in turn means deciding what a successful public education is. I have yet to see an informed and honest discussion of these questions (though this may just be my ignorance).

Most every school system in America does have an implicit merit system. Merit, it says, flows directly from "teacher training." The more courses and workshops you have attended, the better teacher you are. Everyone in the field knows that this is at best a pious hope, at worst a self-serving lie. Yet most of us accumulate course credits and professional development points because we know the more we have, the more we get paid.

So how should we operationalize merit? One possibility is to look at "how much have students learned?" An immediate problem is that different teachers test different things in different ways. And the fact that a student has memorized something for a test and forgotten it the next day is hardly a definition of learning.

So how about uniform tests at the end of the year? Ideally, the tests would cover what was important in the course and leave out unnecessary details. That is a tremendous practical difficulty but I think there is an even greater problem.

We all know that if we give an unannounced test on things covered a month or so before, the students will do terribly. Most of what we did back then, they simply have not made part of their mental tool kit.

Reviewing at the end of the year can be tremendously useful if it is, “This is how the course fits together; this is how it all makes sense; this is what I want you to take from this course.” But all too often it is, “All the way through, you memorized things well enough to pass the tests. Now I’m asking you to memorize once more so you can pass the final. The minute you hand in the final, my concern with what you know ends.”

Harsh, but ... Most of our students we will never see again. They will never again be asked to show what we taught them and we will never be held responsible for it. If we really thought that merit involved “how much students learn,” it would make more sense to give finals the first day of the following year rather than the last day of the teaching year.

But perhaps I can make lemonade from these lemons. Perhaps memorizing something for a short time and then forgetting what isn’t of use anymore is an important skill--especially if you are able to do something with the information during the time you’ve memorized it. Think of the businessperson with a project or the lawyer with a case.

Maybe what is important is not subject matter knowledge but skills, habits, practice.

Even something simple like following directions:

“Mr. Sweeny, why didn’t I get credit for this?”

“What do the directions say?”

“I didn’t read the directions.”

“Read this.” [pointing]

“‘If the statement is false, replace the italicized word with a word that will make the statement correct.’ (pause) That’s not fair. I knew it was false.”

“But the directions say you have to change the word. You can’t just put down ‘False.’”

“Can I at least get partial credit?”

7/05/2007 6:36 AM  

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