Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Merit Pay oh Merit Pay, how do you evade me?

Below, a conversation I'm having with InterACT blogger David Cohen. If I'm not mistaken, he's a paid contributor.

September 15, 2010 11:26 am
I always appreciate your take. and by and large I agree with most of your post. But I must admit, as economics teacher, you lost me here:

“”There is also little or no evidence for the claim that teachers will be more motivated to improve student learning if teachers are evaluated or monetarily rewarded for student test score gains.”

Now, you might merely be stating a synopsis of the “research” but I hope you don’t mean to insinuate that teachers will not respond to incentives. The tenure based system employed by most districts is fatally lacking in this one area.

Are you against incentives in principle? In my cursory glance, I do not see mention of this in your recommendations for changes to evaluation systems in CA.


Reply David B. Cohen permalink*
September 15, 2010 2:24 pm
Hello Mike,
I always appreciate being pushed to refine my thinking and writing, but this particular quotation comes from the report I’m citing. It’s not originally my statement.

However, I do agree with the statement. The key detail is the distinction between learning and test scores. So teachers might very well respond to test score-based incentives, but if the focus is on raising test scores, I have misgivings about the likelihood of improvement related to desirable learning outcomes. It’s the narrowing effect that we’ve seen with NCLB, and a dose of Campbell’s Law, which as you probably know, argues that high stakes decisions based on narrow measures will inevitably corrupt the measurement tool and the value of what’s being measured.

It’s also worth looking into the work of Daniel Pink, who presents a convincing case in Drive that incentives generally work better for simple tasks that we might not otherwise be motivated to do. Complex, creative tasks, and those we generally enjoy doing, tend to suffer when incentives come into play. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose will drive intrinsic motivation, which is generally more powerful and sustained than external motivation guided by rewards and consequences.

September 15, 2010 8:48 pm
Hi David,
I am not familar with Campbell. However, I don’t necessarily mean to advocate the use of high stakes testing as the sole measurement tool by which we might compose an argument about teacher quality. Forgive me for speaking more generally in the context of your post. What I mean to say that the lack of performance based incentives, regardless of evaluation methodology, serves to breed a culture that I believe is detrimental to the profession. For example, in my district, princpals are unable to assign a reading to teachers on best practice without being accused of union busting. With all do respect to unions- that is a problem. I read similar accounts everyday on my associations message forum.

If my school system is like most, the only way for a teacher to make additional money, is to do something other than teaching. I am intrinsically motivated to create a high quality lessons but my motivation has limits. I must consider, like many other teachers, the opportunity cost associated with staying late at work, or turning around 120 essays in 24 hours, despite what I may know is best for my students. I’d rather write some curriculum for 30 bucks an hour or coach a baseball team for 10 bucks an hour, or play in the yard with my son. Atleast I can justify these because they benefit my family.

We must reward high quality teaching with money. There must be a reason for me to go visit another teacher’s classroom. There must be a reason for me to teach in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable. There must be a reason for teachers to get to work on time, attend meetings, be open to suggestions, and otherwise do their job. Many of these tasks are simple. Heck, start there.

As a profession we are willing to put time and resources into evaluating and helping the least effective teachers (my district uses a Peer Assistance and Review program). But we are not willing to provide carrots for the 95% of other teachers for fear those carrots will be distributed unfairly. However, a more unfair way system is to pay the seniored teacher who continues to assign questions from a book the same or more than the young teacher who delivers dynamic differentiated instruction. Think about the culture that creates- and tell me you think it doesn’t exist- or that it is not worthy of best effort to change it. Incentives matter.

September 15, 2010 10:28 pm
Mike, thanks so much for taking the time to reply in such detail. One of the best things about blogging is having your views challenged or probed, and given that my views are somewhat limited by experience and context (like anyone else), it helps to read what you wrote. On some of the specific points, I certainly agree that an administrator should be able to assign reading without being accused of union-busting. I’ve also seen some examples of hyper-sensitivity around labor issues that are unbecoming of a professional association, which is what I think we should be. Professionals do not watch every minute on the clock, and they should expect to be engaged in ongoing development and dialogue with each other and with administrators. However, I think that a wise administrator would not “assign” reading out of the blue, but would perhaps share readings that address the school’s needs, which would be a constant topic of dialogue. I would hope that a principal either said, “I went to find resources that address our needs, and I’d like you to read this for our next meeting,” or perhaps, “Here’s an article that some teachers shared with me, and I thought it worth sharing with the whole staff.”

On the larger issue of incentives, I agree with you that incentives are important, but would prioritize other incentives. Again, Daniel Pink has written what I consider the bible on motivation, Drive. Now, thinking of yourself or some other teachers, do you think you might be motivated to do your best work if you had greater autonomy to make educational decisions for your students, guided not by distant bureaucracies but rather by your own judgment, exercised within the context of a professional, collaborative community? Would your motivation increase if you were supported in efforts to become a master teacher, perhaps by designing your own professional development program to suit your needs? Would your motivation increase if you saw a greater sense of purpose in your work, perhaps by linking it more effectively with other classes, schools, and the broader community? Pink’s book argues convincingly that such priorities would yield higher quality, longer lasting results when compared with pay incentives. Now, I do agree with you that there should be some way for a highly qualified, highly effective mid-career teacher to “leap-frog” the lackadaisical veteran in pay – but I would attach that pay to differentiated roles and responsibilities that also provide greater autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

September 16, 2010 8:28 pm
Thanks for the reply, David. I’ll add Pink to my reading list. I must admit that I already feel a great deal of autonomy with regard to lesson creation and decision making. However, I know others who teach the same material in my same school and feel much differently. I suppose perception is reality- which creates quite a pickle if your Pink. Any constraint could then be percieved as an attack on autonomy mastery and purpose. I tend to think those people will be miserable no matter what the circumstances. But alas- maybe we can continue this conversation after I read.

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