Some Considerations About Merit Pay

The Board and the Association shall each appoint five (5) members to a compensation committee. The purpose and intent of this compensation committee shall be to develop and implement a teacher compensation structure based on professional teacher effectiveness. The Board and the Association further agree that teacher compensation levels shall not increase until such time that the Board and the Association, through the work of this committee, develop, ratify and implement a professional teaching compensation structure based on teacher performance and fiscal sustainability. – from the Springboro School Board’s contract negotiation

The Springboro Board of Education and the Springboro Education Association are currently in contract negotiations for 2013-2014. The Board, in order to encourage transparency*, posted the first draft of these negotiations online. Both sides have suggested meaningful changes: the Board wants to chop the contract down to a mostly bare-bones type thing; the SEA wants a beefed-up contract that will allow them greater say in their schools.

Perhaps the biggest change in the contract is the question of compensation. The Board is gutting the pay scale the Disctrict has used in the past (which is currently based on experience and education) in favor of setting up a committee that would establish a new system based on teacher effectiveness. This is not a new idea in education policy. It’s generally called “merit pay.”

Merit pay is something that on the surface seems really great. Why not pay the most effective educators more? It seems intuitive. But here are some things the District, and perhaps, more specifically, the Board, should take into consideration before implementing such a system.

1. Merit pay does not conclusively increase student achievement.
Many of the merit pay systems that currently exist (mostly in urban school districts) are relatively new, and it’s too early to tell if they will have substantial effects. Of those that already exist, the New York City system is probably the most notorious. It mostly failed. Although, many argued that the system was not used correctly. Scientific studies have been inconclusive. One study says merit pay does increase student achievement, but that the fear of losing pay actually increases student achievement more. Another study showed that performance pay did not affect student achievement. And the entire concept of merit pay seems to go against what popular psychologists know about motivation.

2. A good merit pay system will involve compromises.
The model for a good merit pay system is probably Newark, New Jersey. Last November, the Newark Teachers Union approved a contract that included merit pay. This approval was the result of an almost year-long negotiation that at times involved Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and a commissioner hand-chosen by New Jersey governor Chris Christie. As a result, the Newark model is one-of-a-kind because it combines merit pay with peer evaluation. Teachers, fearing their pay being attached to test scores, suggested peer evaluation as a way to judge performance.

3. How do you judge merit?
The problem Newark faced is, of course, the problem any district would have to face in order to enact merit pay. How do you distinguish the great teachers from the mediocre ones? The reason merit pay has been jumping around education headlines recently is because there is an assumption underlying education policy today that we have an objective measurement of student achievement–namely, standardized test scores.

But standardized test scores are entirely constructed, and at times, quite arbitrary. Mr. Petroni, a Springboro School Board member, has noted that the distinctions the Ohio Graduation Test makes are almost useless. Where Mr. Petroni and I disagree is that he thinks we should demand better scores on these tests and I believe we should rethink the tests. Standardized tests, more generally, and the OAT and OGT more specifically, have been accused of being heavily biased. A study at Youngstown State University by Dr. Randy L. Hoover found that the OAT and OGT do not test for student growth as much as they test for student circumstance. It’s easy to see, when looking at OAT data, that more affluent districts do better than less affluent ones, but Dr. Hoover argues that this has less to do with the quality of education in these differing districts and more to do with the economic and historical realities of the students. All the OAT tests, in other words, is whether a student is rich or poor.

This is something that confounded me for a really long time so I’m going to parse it out here. The common education reform line is that there is an achievement gap–that low-income students achieve at a lower level than their high-income peers do. And there are certainly horror stories. In Detroit, for instance, there are 100,000 adults with high school degrees who are functionally illiterate. These horror stories, however, have been combined with the high-low income “achievement” disparity to obfuscate the reality of our standardized tests. Policy-makers have thus far clung even closer to standardized tests, reasoning that we can ensure a literate graduated populace by forcing them into testing.

The problem is standardized tests don’t really tell us whether we have a critical-thinking, well-educated populace. A student union in Rhode Island recently challenged 50 high-power highly successful individuals to take the standardized test high school students in Rhode Island have to pass for graduation. Shockingly, 60% failed.

All this to say, standardized tests are not testing what they are supposed to be testing. And if a School Board wants to change the way teachers are compensated, they better bring something a lot better than tying salaries to student test scores to the table. Or, perhaps, the Board would be willing to take the OGT themselves.

*Pretty much everyone who writes about this negotiation is accused of being biased toward a certain side. I admit, for instance, that I most often find my opinions in line with the Springboro Education Association. However, any phrases that I use to show intention by either side should be approached with much caution. In this piece, I have tried to extend the benefit of doubt to both sides, assuming the best. It should be noted that some of these acts also have more nefarious effects. For instance, posting the negotiations online could perhaps be a strategic move–one made by the Board to antagonize the Association.

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