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Merits and Demerits

I really detest the phrase "merit pay," in any of its multiple incarnations, mostly because genuine merit has nothing to do with the dangling-carrot incentivizing attached to education policy these days. Merit is a useful word: boy scout badges, outstanding performance and doing the right thing. Merit pay is generally about test scores.

But not always. Once the concept of merit pay is accepted, you just never know who's going to get excited about monetary inducements for teachers--or what goals will be achievable now that they're connected to financial rewards.

For example, take the "miracle" that the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (a conservative think tank) is now touting, in little Oscoda, Michigan. It took only $25,000 --an average of a mere $294.12 per for each of Oscoda's 82 teachers-- to whip those educators into shape, on three key indicators: teacher absences, professional development and parent-teacher conferences.

According to the school figures, the district saved $41,100 in 2009-10 by not having to pay substitute teachers. That's because teachers have missed fewer school days, going from 7.51 absences per teacher in 2007-08 to 7.08 in 2008-09 and 7.47 in 2009-10. Teachers have also reduced the number of absences from professional development days, from a total of 52 absences in 2007-08 to 33 in 2008-09, and then to just 21 in 2009-10.

But the most startling results were found in parental attendance at parent-teacher meetings. In 2007-08, only 38 percent of the high school students were represented at parent-teacher conferences. That number jumped to 89 percent in 2010-11.

I'd like to take a moment to thank the Mackinac Center for sharing these dramatic results, and proving, once again, that education policy-making and analysis ought to be left to those who have actually worked in schools.

If 82 teachers took an average of 7.51 absences in 2007-08, that's 616 absences total. In the best year, teachers reduced that total to 581 absences. If a reduction of 35 teacher absences saved the district $41,000, they're paying substitutes $1171/day in Oscoda. Spread the word, unemployed teachers!

A reduction of 35 annual absences in a small school might represent nothing more than a year when colds and flu were less ferocious. I'm fairly certain that Mackinac was tallying teachers' per diem salaries to come up the $41,000--but that's not an accurate way to calculate actual costs to the district, as they're paying those salaries whether teachers are absent or not. Is the Mackinac Center seriously suggesting this 7th grade math problem is rigorous data analysis?

As for the other two miracles, getting teachers to attend PD days by paying them is hardly innovative. The key question here is: why were teachers ditching out of the PD days in the first place? Once you answer that, you'll have a key to genuinely improving teaching practice.

And--I'm not sure it's the individual teachers' job to motivate parents to attend conferences. It may be the school's responsibility to make parent conferences convenient and useful. How did the Oscoda high school teachers increase parent attendance at conferences? The article doesn't say. But if they were offering extra credit to students whose parents showed up, isn't that confusing parent compliance with actual student learning? Not good.

As for real experiments with merit pay, here's a great piece explaining why $75 million, administered by Famous Researchers at Harvard, doesn't work, either.

Merit, schmerit.

Where's Oscoda? Hold up your left hand. Oscoda is just below the knuckle of your first finger. On my hand, anyway.

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