Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Barack Obama hearts merit pay

Perhaps as a way to help Americans escape from their economic nightmares, Obama's talking about merit pay. It's working.
In his first major speech on education, Obama said the United States must drastically improve student achievement to regain lost international standing.

"The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens," he said. "We have everything we need to be that nation ... and yet, despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short and other nations outpace us."

His solutions include teacher pay and charter school proposals that have met resistance among members of teachers unions, which constitute an important segment of the Democratic Party.
I am--gulp--a union member who sees room in educational compensation for merit pay. I know this means coming out of a closet of sorts, but if research connects teacher quality to student achievement, and teacher longevity to competitive compensation, then some reasonable form of merit pay combines the best of both worlds.

What I haven't seen is a merit pay scheme that is truly fair. I can't see any worthwhile use of test scores. For example, as a high school teacher with two vastly different sets of classes--say, two periods Remedial Math and three periods AP Calculus--then roughly 60% of my performance is not directly comparable to the other 40%. Furthermore, I'm standing on the shoulders--or running with the parachutes--of 10 or more elementary and middle school teachers.

Show me a sophisticated metric to fairly compensate performance, Obama team, and I'll be on board.

Until then, I'll remain cautious, optimistic, and--yep--hopeful.

(Charter schools? Evidence of their success is pretty thin. But I'm open to persuasion.)


Anonymous said...

what about a formula that combined several factos: grades, student's relative grades/improvement, and votes by students, parents, and co workers? Or if that sounds too complex, why can't the princple of the school just use thier discretion? Plenty of private companies give subjective bonuses.

Joseph Nusz said...

I would be leery of giving subjective bonuses in a business funded by tax revenues. Perhaps a scaled version of merit pay would be safer from a motivational standpoint. Say a class taught by John Doe reaches 85% of curriculum benchmarks, and another class taught by Jane Doe reaches 100%. When the new AP teachers receives half from John's class and half from Jane's, he could get a handicap of 7.5%: {100% benchmark - 85% achieved)(50% class size) + (100% - 100%)(50%) = 7.5% If the new AP teacher can get within 7.5% of benchmarks, he deserves merit pay.

The motivational scheme is such that teachers want bad students so they can make them good students for maximum merit pay (as opposed to what I saw in high school, teachers wanting good students so their job was easier). Teachers can't get their colleagues in prerequisite courses to send them bad students intentionally because that would destroy the prerequisite teachers' merit pay. The rub is providing extra pay for honors courses - teachers who consistently receive no handicap for merit pay would be unmotivated, so form a federal grant similar to the SMART grant, but for high school teachers.

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