Monday, August 20, 2012

"New" Virginia Teacher Evaluations- The Foundation for Merit Pay?

Merit Pay. A simple idea.  Increased pay will increase the amount of good teaching.   Based on the logical idea that the harder and better you work, the more your students learn and the better they perform.  So you deserve compensation accordingly.   But the practical world and theoretical world too seldom cross paths in public education.  There's too many moving parts.

Whether you stand inside or outside a classroom may have a large impact on whether you see such an effort as a good or bad thing.   The TU works in a classroom and sadly no bad idea stays dead long.  Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have shown they favor Merit Pay and have enacted policies to encourage it.  Many like-minded reforms gain widespread support at the onset, but when programs are implemented they often bring about troubling unforeseen consequences. You 'd be hard pressed to find those who thought in NCLB was a bad thing when it was passed...not so hard today. Maybe there's a lesson in that.

It is not easy to define good teaching. That reality makes Merit pay iffy. I've had kids in the same class earn the same grade and one would say I was great..the other might use more colorful language to describe my teaching.  Yet they are both correct.  One might vastly outperform the other on a standardized test despite my best efforts.  Or they might score the same  but I may have had to work much harder with one of them for that result.  So it seems reasonable I might suggest that merit and pay should stay far apart in public education.  I see people who make more money often doing less(I'm among those who make less so that cannot be seen as an objective statement).   Merit pay rewards in unreliable ways that can and have misrepresented student progress.  To suggest it should be the only way to measure teachers is dumb, to have student performance play a role might only be foolish.

Lab Rats?  The result is not always what is intended.  NCLB anyone?
 New York City tried and failed with a merit pay system.  Many other districts across the country are sticking with theirs(Houston, Denver, Chicago). Who's right?  More on this later.  I recall an article and a quote from DC Chief of Human Capital(whatever that title means) “We want to make great teachers rich.”  I'd sit that cat down and say."You can't."  If he questioned why I'd ask him to find a good teacher who took the job with getting rich in mind.  I'd then say that person is an idiot.  No offense.  If you try to sell me on something by saying "You COULD make up to $X" I will bet its either Amway or an offer written on a sign on the shoulder of the road at a stoplight.

Teachers should be paid more but we remain in sometime horrific working conditions because of the non-monetary rewards.  My colleague has called teaching a life giving profession and at times that is so true.  Merit Pay discussions are not one of those times.  It would in fact suck the life and energy from far too many teachers.  We are not lab rats after all.  Here's a news flash.  Morale matters.    Merit systems show up in a puzzling variety of ways.  If it was so simple and so effective then it should look the same everywhere.   It does not.  The simple reason is because it does not do what it promises to do long term but decision makers still accept the premise. 

I will be the first to admit that the way we are compensated today, based solely on degrees, years experience and additional duties doesn't always make sense.  There is differentiation but I think the wrong people make more money.  But if it is nothing else it is predictable and predictability in public school budgets is important.  That is not certain under a merit pay system.  There is individual merit pay and also some exploration into providing bonuses on the building level for a sort of pooled merit pay.   The attractive part in principle is that if you do a good job you students are better served and you stand to make more money.  The frightening part is that students might learn less on the whole and teachers also stand to make significantly less money over time.   If we are asked to "compete" for bonuses from a fixed amount of funds that won't foster much cooperation and collaboration, the lifeblood of teaching and developing new new young talent.  Merit supporters dismiss this and use all sorts of misguided analogies to paint opponents as whiny alarmists.  I am a lazy teacher who took the job so I wouldn't have to work hard and I'd still get paid...right?

What do teachers think will actually make them better?
Sure in some other jobs people make more or less based on performance but don't drink the kool-aid and believe what you hear from "meritists".  This commonly believed trend is in no way true in many fields and based on the changing economy the number of jobs where productivity affects pay is in decline.  Some suggest it is true in less than 6% of the workforce.(that article is a must read)  But we are not talking about other jobs where units sold, or contracts closed are tangible and make sense.  We are talking about education and our kids.   We are talking about teaching young people.  Are we able to create something that rewards MERIT in something as complex as education?  Give that some deep thought.   Is merit pay the way to achieve an improved teaching workforce?      Hardly.   I believe and some evidence and studies confirm it will achieve the opposite and do more to drive away good teachers rather than attract them.  We aren't lab rats after all    There are countless variables at work and so many moving parts that creating an equitable and potentially effective system becomes too colossal a task to complete.

One flaw is that teacher performance is only part of the equation and the students are not incentivized.  Numeric measures grow to misrepresent what students are actually learning since what is being measured becomes the focus.  I believe as a teacher I could be more effective teaching fewer students with fewer preps and more planning time.  Yet this is not even in the discussion. If indeed people did work harder why not pay me per unit..I mean pupil?  How about simply by the hour?  Money, that's why.  Many criticize proposals as simply an effort to save money and not truly a way to improve education.  I'd add that however you choose to measure teacher performance, it will always fail to fully measure everything that is involved in what good teachers do. 

With revisions to how teachers statewide are to be evaluated the cynical eye might spot a clear framework for the implementation of a statewide merit pay system. That worries me.  I've read enough to confirm my suspicions that people with influence want to bring Merit Pay to the Commonwealth.  Revised versions of a evaluation standards are intended to provide a more uniform and "objective" way to evaluate teachers.  And don't forget one that is driven. 
In April of 2011 Governor Bob McDonnell announced a pilot program to institute merit pay in  169 "hard to staff" schools across the state.  In response Kitty Boitnott of the VA Education Association, which represents teachers had this to say:   “Paying teachers to work in hard-to-staff schools is one thing, but it’s totally different to allocate pay based on how students do on an SOL on a given day in a given year,

"Yes, your salary and job security depend on this student."
Many of the measures used under the pilot are simply derived ratings from SOLs.  I and many other well informed people contest that student performance on standardized tests are a poor measure of teacher performance.  Few sane people argue that.  The issues relating to the secrecy, merit, quality, and efficacy of such tests are something the TU and countless other teachers have blasted as highly flawed.  Yet standardized testing continues to be the favored approach by too many politicians and legislatures across the country as a barometer of how we are doing.   No longer a measure of just students or schools, but now individual teachers.  The key phrase I've heard used quite a bit over the last year and in particular over the past week is Student Academic Progress or Student Academic Growth.  As I write these blogs I often circle back to the constant effort by many to turn teaching from an art and into a quantifiable science.  And starting this year I will be assigned a numeric value to how well I teach. 

Maybe this effort grows from the Feds and the Race to the Top program's preference to states that had something along the lines of merit pay.  Maybe it is an effort to level the playing field and find was to more objectively measure non-core teachers in subjects like art and music.  Maybe it comes from ALEC or the Gates Foundation and their deep coffers. It is coming from somewhere and wherever that is, they are unfamiliar with good teaching.  Let's look for a moment at how VA  judges its  teachers:

The Guidelines for Uniform Performance Standards and Evaluation Criteria for Teachers set forth
seven performance standards for all Virginia teachers. Pursuant to state law, teacher evaluations must
be consistent with the following performance standards (objectives) included in this document:
Performance Standard 1: Professional Knowledge- 10%
The teacher demonstrates an understanding of the curriculum, subject content, and the
developmental needs of students by providing relevant learning experiences.
Performance Standard 2: Instructional Planning-10%
The teacher plans using the Virginia Standards of Learning, the school’s curriculum, effective
strategies, resources, and data to meet the needs of all students.
Performance Standard 3: Instructional Delivery-10%
The teacher effectively engages students in learning by using a variety of instructional strategies
in order to meet individual learning needs.
Performance Standard 4: Assessment of and for Student Learning-10%
The teacher systematically gathers, analyzes, and uses all relevant data to measure student
academic progress, guide instructional content and delivery methods, and provide timely
feedback to both students and parents throughout the school year.
Performance Standard 5: Learning Environment-10%
The teacher uses resources, routines, and procedures to provide a respectful, positive, safe,
student-centered environment that is conducive to learning.
Performance Standard 6: Professionalism-10%
The teacher maintains a commitment to professional ethics, communicates effectively, and takes
responsibility for and participates in professional growth that results in enhanced student
Performance Standard 7: Student Academic Progress-40%
The work of the teacher results in acceptable, measurable, and appropriate student
academic progress.

Standard #7 sounds good doesn't it?  But ask yourself for just a moment how that will be demonstrated to someone.  It quickly devolves into either an over-reliance on standardized testing or on a subjective judgement leaving uncertain outcomes.  This creates a threatening shadow that hangs over you as a professional.  Not the best environment to do your best teaching.

In the hopes of receiving a positive rating should I set low growth goals for my students so that they will meet expectations?  Or should push them risking that the appearance they fell short?  Should I target what is on the test, inflating perceived growth?  Will I be as likely to innovate and experiment or will I play it safe with more regimented instructional approaches?  Thinking more broadly can you even measure all that a teacher does?  And if you do, how in the world can create a measure of good teaching that fails to even watch the teacher teach?     

I simply cannot support any measure of a teacher that does not not involve spending time in that teachers classroom.  Further any system that undermines the collegial nature of education and fosters a more competitive environment is bad.  No it is worse.  It threatens the very fabric of what the best practices in teaching and learning are.  A proprietary, for profit, competitive, business minded approach to education is a terrible idea.  So for those arguing in favor, please stop.  Not only are you doing things most teachers oppose you are potentially making them worse teachers and thus hurting our pupils.    I'd strongly encourage fellow teachers in our state to educate themselves on these changes and speak up if they oppose them.

My division seems for now to have avoided the pitfall of simply plugging in SOL scores into Indicator #7.  That is a good thing. But we have to comply with new standards established by the DOE.  When push comes to shove the bottom line is simple: Is merit pay effective long term?
Getting ahead of yourself?  If only it were this simple.
Much of our state's course seems plotted by the Virginia Association of Superintendents.  They do not seem to overtly favor merit pay, but the politicians they influence often make choices based on what is politically expedient and cheaper, not what is wise.  In the "cost versus benefit" discussion their short attention span means they only hear the word cost.  Only time will tell.  Virginia's plans seem to be driven or at least be driven by the Education Commission of the States which seems to lean far more toward the establishment of that system.  That statement is backed by four of the conclusions summarized fro their report Teacher merit pay: What do we Know? :

Each of the studies of the four pay-for-performance systems found no conclusive
evidence to link the new merit pay system with higher student achievement. There are
several potential reasons why there is a lack of conclusive findings:
1. The programs are too new:
2. The implementation of the programs has been too limited:
3. Funding levels may not yet be significant enough:
4. The level of incentive pay may not be high enough to promote change:
5. Perhaps merit pay does not contribute to student achievement:

At least in #5 they are thinking like a teacher.

I'll conclude with an excerpt from the  Educational Reform in Virginia: Blueprint for the Future of Public Education  by the Virginia Association of Superintendents
Page 38 begins the discussion of Merit Pay:

Merit pay programs for educators — sometimes referred to a “pay for performance” — attempt
to tie a teacher’s compensation to his/her performance in the classroom. While the idea of merit
pay for classroom teachers has been around for several decades, only now is it starting to be
implemented in a growing number of districts around the country. One example of the increased
interest for merit pay systems can be seen in the recent increased funding level for the federal
Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF). The TIF program, which is run through the United States
Department of Education (USDOE), provides funding to school districts to help them implement
merit pay systems. The USDOE has increased funding for the TIF program this year by more
than four-fold — from $97.3 million to $437 million. But with all of this increased interest and
funding for merit pay programs — what if anything do we know about the costs versus the
benefits of these systems?

Think what you want.  Just remember in education, it is never THAT simple. Money matters but the last thing I am thinking when I am working my tail off teaching is how much I am getting paid.  Is that simple enough?



  1. Arguing against merit pay sounds so "un-American." The real question is this-- can you possibly pay teachers according to merit. Is teaching just one job? How do you judge the performance of a kindergarten teacher with at-risk students compared to a high school AP teacher?

    A market-driven plan for higher pay based on demand would make more sense than merit. I agree, merit pay isn't even a part of the business model outside of sales where people earn commission. In the business world, good performers stand for promotion which involves higher pay.

    In the teaching world, promotion isn't based on competence and performance, it's based on earning higher degrees, building a convincing resume and making the right connections.

    What if the merit plan for teachers involved identifying teachers who were successful in the classroom and promoting them to positions of influence and decision-making?

    Merit pay isn't a bad idea, but until we can define and accurately measure merit, it can't work.

  2. Well said Anonymous. I like your identifying teachers idea but the only problem being once you move up, you kind of have to move out. Teacher led schools being the exception. I do think it is a bad idea in education since you'd have to standardize it in some way and the devil is in the details. So maybe we should ask what is moving up in teaching? Short of jumping through some hoops for someone far away and earning some fancy certificate(not talking about masters), which doesn't make me much better usually not sure what it is.

  3. This standardized ideal of "merit" being imposed on teachers is yet another example of the solipsism of the bourgeoisie. Under this system "merit" becomes nothing but a measure of how well you can train your students to compete within the marketplace (it's also seems to be a poor measure of even that, but I digress...) Education policy should follow a higher purpose than brute market forces. But alas, the scourge of bourgeois liberalism taints everything it touches.