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Does Merit Pay Make Sense?


Dear Deborah,

It is a good idea to explore the separate elements of the federal education agenda, one by one. Merit pay, the first issue you raise, now stands high among the priorities of the Obama administration as it did for the Bush administration and as it has for the Republican Party and business leaders for many years.

The idea that teachers should be evaluated in large part by the test scores of their students has achieved a remarkable currency in the past year, because President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan have championed it. You worry that merit pay might be unfairly applied and that it would disrupt the collegial nature of schoolwork. You also worry that if teachers get a bonus when scores go up, students will see that their teachers are motivated by money, not the intrinsic satisfaction associated with professional success. And, as you point out, there is precious little evidence (you say NO evidence) that merit pay leads to better schools.

As most now define it, merit pay rewards teachers whose students get higher scores on state tests. Such teachers are likely to require their students to practice for days, weeks, even months for the all-important state tests. Such activities are likely to be repetitive, uncreative, and uninspiring. As Daniel Koretz wrote in his recent book, Measuring Up, this intensive test prep regime may produce higher scores by teaching students the format of the state test, even teaching them very similar questions; however, the students may be unable to perform as well on a different test of the same subject. Such activities, Koretz says, tend to corrupt the measure and reduce its validity.

When I was researching merit pay, I discovered that David K. Cohen and Richard J. Murnane wrote an article in The Public Interest in 1985 called "The Merits of Merit Pay." They pointed out that many urban districts adopted some sort of merit pay in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, times of Republican ascendancy in Washington when educators were trying to adapt business methods to the work of the schools. The idea tended to wane because "schools found it difficult to devise defensible criteria of meritorious teaching." Since consensus was lacking on what constituted good teaching and how to measure it, there was no agreement on how to create a sustainable program.

Back in those olden times, schools lacked the computerized data banks that now make it possible to link the test scores of individual students to their teachers. So our technology has reduced "good teaching" to test score gains.

If our sole concern is to see higher scores, then we might be able to induce teachers to produce them if the rewards are big enough. But will our schools be better? Will our students be better prepared as citizens? Will they have greater interest in science and the arts? Will they have the motivation to learn and explore and create without the whip of a test over their heads? Will they be educated to think for themselves or to produce programmed responses?

My guess is that we will see quite a lot of experimentation with compensation plans. The most successful are likely to pay teachers more for doing more—running after-school programs, mentoring young teachers, performing valuable services in the school—not just for getting higher scores. Some test-score information is bound to be part of the equation; but (in my view) it should not be the dominant part.

I do not see merit pay as a cure-all or even as a significant reform. It may be a distraction from the serious issues that confront our students and our schools. Like you, I, too, am fearful of the heavy-handed application of technology and accountability. I, too, worry that the new technocrats will squeeze the life out of teaching and learning. If this is what our nation is buying for nearly $5 billion in stimulus funding, I want my money back.



Diane, your "Quite a lot of experimentation" comment I hope is the key to going forward. Toward that, I beg to respond here to Deb's Mon. nite comment:

Deb, you ask why we pursue 'strategies that...evidence suggests only modest effects on test scores.' Don't you think (seriously) test scores as a rather short-sighted, short-termed measure of flexible pay?

When we embrace the benefits of flexible pay, we don't expect results in a couple years. What we expect is: the entire enterprise of education will see a long term transition in how it operates.

One of the first things that will happen is that many, then most teachers' salaries will rise faster than they have in the past. The simple reason is that it is much easier for a board to deny 100 teachers a 3% raise ($150,000) than it is to explain to parents that you let Mrs. Rinkes and Mr. English go over $100 a month. More critically, its much harder to explain why you have an unqualified math teacher when Jason Purnaye is standing there, honors degree in hand, offering to work for a higher than average salary.

The second is that the quality of the workplace experience will improve. That 15% or so of young people who are interested in teaching, but not in the balkanized atmosphere of most public schools, will start to make its way into the profession. On the flip side, over 5 or more years, the deadwood will start to migrate out.

The majority of teachers will not notice much change at first, but slowly in some schools, they will note that its just a little bit easier to work there than before. More in some schools than others, more in the big districts than in the 'burbs, but a change nonetheless.

A modern reality that most of us long ago accepted--that there are few lifetime jobs--will take deep root in schools as well. That will be good for both student and teacher.

Some teachers will even leave for a couple year's respite, and come back!!

Building upon these, the next result will be teacher's at the local level worrying less contract issues, and ultimately deciding they don't need to part with that $500 fee each year. That may go into their pocket, or into teaching resources, but it will either way be drained from the lobbying and campaign coffers of the state education associations. Who in turn will have to be smarter about the fights they pick and the dollars they use to influence the legislative arena.

Next, many of teacher's worst duties will go to lesser skilled aides, who will be glad for the opportunity. Indeed, we might even see outsourcing of some of the more rote aspects of grading. Hey, it beats the attention my friend's students were getting last night, as she graded whilst watching "Two and a Half Men"!

Finally, we will, in maybe ten years, begin to see across the profession what I have come to think of as the UPS effect (After Thomas Friedman's description thereof). The very nature of jobs inside education institutions will slowly transform. By allowing for a range of people to interact with students (not just one class, Teacher), students will be able to get a wee bit more from the experience. And then, much more.

I believe test scores can and should be a portion of teacher reviews- because they deserve to be.

Teachers that are able to raise tests scores for students in a consistent and predictable manner over the course of years of service damn well deserve that recognition. It would cataclysmically foolish to ignore a track record of talent and dedication. Not only do they deserve the kudos, they deserve extra pay, because they are extra valuable. Their abilities will further inspire their co-workers as well.

I dont believe test scores are the best measure of teacher performance- only a fairly incompetent manager would believe something like that. Like any employee, teachers earn and deserve a fair and comprehensive employee review based on observation of their work habits, talent and dedication. Test scores are an appropriate portion of that process.

Teaching to my state's tests is a profound dis-service to the students and the state. A competent teacher will teach students to think critically and SOLVE problems, not answer test questions. That teacher's students are likely to do well on the tests. That said, student improvement over the school year is both testable, and in my opinion fair game.

I work in a field where pay is merit based. It is not the boogey-man many people seem to think. People who feel fairly compensated for their work and experience don't care too much what their colleagues' pay is, and it does NOT squelch collegiality. People who love to teach, even in my field, do so and everyone benefits - companies recognize the added value when that happens and compensate accordingly.

The fear of how the federal government or technocrats may move forward with ideas on merit pay and accountability should encourage teachers and administrators to develop their own systems in their schools and/or districts. The profession will not get away with avoiding these issues, so they'd be best off taking responsibility for it themselves. To get the federal government off their backs, they will need to show that they can effectively adapt so that the government won't feel the need to step in.

Dianne's original posting makes a pretty big leap by equating merit pay to pay based on test scores. In the private sector, especially among white collar workers, individuals are frequently paid bonuses/incentives all the time for achievement goals that are not necessarily quantitative. It would require elevating/reestablishing the management role of site principals. One could, for example, imagine a system in which achievement of aggreed upon goals and objectives counted for some percentage of possible merit bonus along with test scores. Principals, in turn, would be evaluated by THEIR superiors around aggreed to goals.

But will our schools be better? Will our students be better prepared as citizens? Will they have greater interest in science and the arts? Will they have the motivation to learn and explore and create without the whip of a test over their heads? Will they be educated to think for themselves or to produce programmed responses?

Maybe not. But at least kids will be better able to read and write and do math than they were before. And that's worth something.

To be sure, if the schools had all been such wonderfully competent institutions that learning reading and math could be taken for granted, and instead everyone could focus on churning out scientists and artists and model citizens, THEN you'd be right that schools shouldn't be forced to turn away from their activities and focus instead on testing. But that wasn't even remotely the situation, and you darn well know it.

John Doe, are we talking about a lack of instructional competence in school? In that case, by all means let's continue the existing pay scheme that rewards things like master degrees in education.

But I suspect the crux is that schools do not always recognize teachers that are truly proficient in their subject matter. This can be fixed by means of instituting teacher certification levels tied to subject matter exams, and rewarding financially the better certified teachers.

"Public service" really means that the public forcibly serves the government. Is the American mind so corrupted that it is ready to deem tax feeder activity meritorious?

You have the National Academy of Sciences on your side, Diane.


Who should we believe; Jones, Doe, and Fallon, or the National Academy of Sciences?

Boy, is it ever refreshing to have the voice of someone like Paul Bowers added to Bridging Differences. Can you imagine? There's actually someone else out there who believes merit pay has a place in the teacher evaluation process. God bless America!

And oh, by the way, seems as though John Doe thinks there's some merit (Get it? Merit?) in actually examining how teachers perform in the classroom as opposed to automatically giving all teachers a knee-jerk commendable report to slide into their permanent record folder every other year.

Could it also be that Erik sees some value in merit bonuses for better test scores?

And let's not forget Ed Jonses' input which seems to suggest there's an alternative pay plan in the future of our profession.

So, anyone notice any kind of pattern here?

Hi All.... hope this finds you well. Merit pay tied to test scores does nothing for me.

I have seen little evidence over the last decade that this will do much of anything...other then have many teachers teaching more and more toward test prep!

Walking thru most schools and all schools that are in "need of improvement" what i see is already a narrowing of schooling into 90-120 plus minutes or blocks for language arts and math.

for me...wrong direction.... would we consider schooling in America great if all kids simply passed poorly designed tests in 2 narrow area's?

Is there not a bit more to it?

be well...mike


Interesting to note you appeared to have altered your stance on merit pay somewhat when you state, "Some test-score information is bound to be part of the equation; but (in my view) it should not be the dominant part."

Also, no mention here of the report that came out last week by the Brookings Institute on the magnitude of curriculum in education reform? Merit pay, charter schools standards reform, early childhood education aside, Russ Whitehurst appears to have made quite a case for something many were not even factoring into the ed reform equation.

Paul asks above about the criticality of curriculum, complimenting Diane's question of the significance of flexible pay and Deb's drilling on why reformers focus on the pay issue.

We certainly were factoring in the importance of curriculum!

What the years have shown is that there has become among educators a resistance to knowledge-centered education. 21st century skills is the latest incarnation of this, but we can drop back to the removal of world history from most schools in the '60's, the watering down of what was left of History, and back even to the '50's and before when we removed simple narrative prose from texts and replaced it with jargon-filled analysis by infinitely boring PhD-wonk committees.

Add to that all the electives and life-skills classes, band and football as classes, etc.

Finally add that among Urban/African Americans even less substantive knowledge was being passed on.

All the other reforms are but efforts to put the nations education force back on the path of knowledge-centered instruction. Merit pay included.

Ed, it is unclear that 'letting the free market do its work' in what regards teacher pay, certification, curriculum policy etc would eventually result in the return of knowledge-centered education.

The debate regarding teacher certification is nicely summarized in the Attracting, Developing and Retaining Effective Teachers background report for the US prepared in 2004 for OECD by the NCTQ and the U.S. Department of Education International Affairs Office.

Although there is wide agreement that the academic standards for teachers need to be raised, there is presently a wide-ranging debate in the United States over the future of teacher certification. The debate is split into roughly two camps:
1) the movement to add greater regulations to teacher certification and related activities, and
2) the movement to lower barriers to teaching for talented individuals.

The proponents of the 1st are National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, the two national teacher unions, etc. The proponents of the 2nd are the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (see its report), who instead of adding even more regulation to the teacher training system, [would like to] open up the profession to well-educated individuals and ... hold principals accountable for student learning.

Andrei's post seems to point to a new D&D exchange on teacher certification. Where do the two of you stand on this? You both may have already expressed your positions. If so, I missed it.

I taught in one of Ohio's "Excellent" suburban districts for 15 years and recently quit because I felt like I had done everything I could under the current system and the job was no longer intellectually stimulating for me. I enjoyed it tremendously, but I was bothered that every year 2 to 5 males would not pass my class.

It was an 11th grade English class and I worked tirelessly with my administrators and guidance counselors to help these young men and nothing worked.

When I first started teaching, we had three levels of high school English and new teachers were always assigned the lowest level. I, and a few other teachers, fought to get rid of the lowest level and raise expectations for all students as a result. It worked. No longer did we have classes of behavior problems with a few students with IEPs thrown in, but we had college preparatory classes that allowed students with lower abilities to challenge themselves. Our teachers worked with those students to make them successful. Their grades may not have been A's, as in the lower level classes, but I guarantee they learned more without sitting in a room of behavior problems (the behavior problems were spread out and didn't cause as many problems without their friends around- and they worked more too).

However, the real problem became clear: the 2 to 5 males that wouldn't pass. And, yes, they refused to pass. They refused to carry books. They refused to do homework. They wanted to come to school and sleep.

By 11th grade, these young men had 3 English classes on their schedules because they had failed the years before and their parents did not make them take summer school. Each year of high school, they accumulated discipline points for infractions like tardies and skipping classes and would end up in the Alternative schools where they would not do any work. When they returned to school, they were failing everything and built up more discipline points for skipping classes and eventually would end up expelled.

My question to all of you is this: what is one teacher supposed to do about this? If you are going to tie whether or not a student graduates or does well on a standardized test to teacher evaluations and pay, you're going to have to require mandatory drug testing for school participation or you are not playing fair. Teachers can not teach someone on drugs.

Many of you will say this is just a small, suburban problem- only 3% of students affected. But, in Ohio, they are trying to say a teacher will be able to be fired for "good and just cause." What if an administrator, desperate to prove himself to the State decides to fire teachers who can't help these 3%? You're going to have teachers suing parents for loss of income because I guarantee the parents know there is a problem.

I do not, however, want the parents punished. I think, if we seriously want every student to graduate, we have to provide real help to these families. I am not a drug counselor, so I do not know what is most effective, but I can guess it involves the whole family. And, this is not just a suburban problem.

Everyone concerned with dropouts usually thinks of the large, urban schools. They call the teachers working there ineffective and want to promote Charter schools. Well, what is the key ingredient in a successful Charter school? Parental involvement. If we had parents in the suburbs who were not involved and wouldn't make these young men take summer school or wouldn't get on them when they brought home report cards with all F's, what do you think is happening in urban schools? Stop calling the teachers in the large, urban schools incompetent when they have to deal with the 3% I had to deal with on a magnified scale. It's not fair.

If Charter schools are the answer, then say that and provide real drug rehabilitation. Break the large, urban schools up. Make laws limiting district size. That's the real problem- not the teachers and whether or not students can pass standardized tests.

I feel a need to address Former Teacher, even though I think that this takes us a bit astray from the topic at hand, which is merit pay.

I sincerely applaud your efforts to stop dividing English classrooms into the haves and have-nots. I believe that English, if nothing else, is one of the easier content areas to differentiate and to provide inclusion experiences. But I have to smile at your, and others I have read, fear of being fired for good and just cause. Most workers in most states can be fired for no cause at all--did you know that? I can tell you that I have lost jobs for very stupid reasons totally unrelated to (and in direct opposition to) the quality of my work. I had no recourse--except to fight for my right to receive unemployment compensation by demonstrating that my loss of employment was neither my choice nor the result of incompetence.

Now then, to the gist of your post, which seems to be, should teachers be held accountable for students who disengage and refuse to learn? I know that when I taught GED classes, I felt as much, if not more, "hooked" by the students who didn't maintain, who disappeared, or who only came as long as their welfare check could be held or diminished if they did not. It seems as though you have a similar concern. Yes--I would hold that there is a similar responsibility to teach each and every student. And I would also point out that in your suburban district there were doubtless far more supportive resources at hand than I had in my hourly position with compensation for a single weekly hour of planning and a file cabinet full of photo-copied "materials." I had no counselors, social workers, videos, books on tape, computers, and since my students were technically adults, not even any parents.

I do believe that it is possible--just as you lobbied for and accomplished an end to levelled classrooms--for teachers as a group to take on and help to resolve problems for outlier groups such as you describe. It is even possible to do have an impact (sometimes even more likely) when the group is not an outlier, but the norm. I won't suggest specifics, here, but certainly there are others who have. My biggest frustration, as an urban school parent, has always been finding anyone who accepts responsibility for anything.

"...schools do not always recognize teachers that are truly proficient in their subject matter. This can be fixed by means of instituting teacher certification levels tied to subject matter exams, and rewarding financially the better certified teachers." Great idea Andrei. I took the Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure (MTEL) in Math ~7 years ago. The day I took the test, less than half of the 1st time test-takers passed and less than 1/4 of the repeat test-takers passed. These were typical statistics for that test. For the next administration of the MTEL, the test I took for 5-12 became the high school test, and an easier test was implemented for middle school math teachers. Why? They couldn't get enough teachers certified to teach math! I asked both the testing agency and the Massachusetts Dept. of Ed for more statistics on that test, such as mean, max, and variance. They refused to provide any such statistics, and after 5 years told me they don't provide it because they DON'T WANT HIRING DECISIONS TO BE BASED ON TEST SCORES. I don't see why that's their decision. By way of contrast, Praxis has a "Recognition of Excellence" designation for the top scorers (15%, I think). Frustrating.

Former Teacher - "My question to all of you is this: what is one teacher supposed to do about this?" The Freedom Writers Institute may be a good place to start. Glad there are teachers like you who are asking important questions! I agree with Margo on the point that most employees in most states can be fired at will - good and just cause not required.

In virtually none of the articles and comments I read on this subject does anyone mention secondary education or the specialists. Not everything is tested, thank God. But how on earth will this play out in an actual school district where some people teach subjects that are tested and some do not? Who will get the benefits? I see every one of the 400 children in my elementary school. Will I be eligible for some sort of merit pay? And based on which test? And if I'm not, how do we tease out which piece of the students' instruction makes them successful? It's even worse when you look at secondary schools. Band teacher? Drafting? Foreign language?

To everyone, this is going to seem "off-the-topic" of merit pay, but I can't ignore this. I promise I'll get back to merit pay at the end.


You said, "But I have to smile at your, and others I have read, fear of being fired for good and just cause. Most workers in most states can be fired for no cause at all--did you know that? I can tell you that I have lost jobs for very stupid reasons totally unrelated to (and in direct opposition to) the quality of my work. I had no recourse--except to fight for my right to receive unemployment compensation by demonstrating that my loss of employment was neither my choice nor the result of incompetence."

I am very sorry to hear that, but unless you lost your license to work in your particular field for those same ridiculous reasons, it's not the same. I can't speak for every state, but in Ohio, superintendents face criminal charges if they do not report possible misconduct to the Ohio Department of Education. There is a subjective disciplinary rule called "Conduct Unbecoming the teaching profession" that is being abused right now. The Office of Professional Conduct (the OPC) investigates such cases and has a zero-tolerance policy for misconduct right now. This is happening because The Columbus Dispatch ripped ODE to pieces in October 2007 and Governor Strickland demanded reform. Many good things resulted: increased background checks, the "rap back" system letting ODE know of a school employee's arrest immediately, and the state's Licensure Code of Conduct.

The problem is the disparity between the Code's disciplinary guidelines and the punishments being issued by the OPC. They ask for permanent revocations too often. I feel this is to prove to the Dispatch that they can be "tough." The even bigger problem is the State Board members are doing the same thing- they want to prove they can be "tough" too, so whenever there is a case in which a hearing officer happens to ask for anything less than a permanent revocation, they amend the recommendation and take the license. It's out of control and teachers/administrators can't fight them because the Ohio Supreme Court tightened up its Appeal policy back in May. Other than a public opinion war to get the OPC and the State Board members to be reasonable, there isn't anything that can be done and it is not the same as being fired. A teacher/administrator is taken completely out of a field of work in which he/she has a Master's degree or a PhD.

On a different note, I'm sorry your urban school experience has been bad. It's just hard to hear people criticize teachers when I know how hard I worked and how much my school district has done. This blog and a few others are making me interested in Charter schools though. Admittedly, working and living in the suburbs has made me "charter-school ignorant." I've only had time to consider many of these issues since I quit teaching, but I've always thought it was strange that every large, urban school district seems to be so "bad." I really think size of a district matters.

And, to those of you concerned that this isn't about merit pay, my original post was. My point was that there are circumstances a classroom teacher cannot control and I would hate to see his pay reduced because he, due to a particular course or "new teacher" status, was assigned more of the types of students I mentioned. I also think teaching to a test promotes mediocrity.

To "reg,"

I agree. I don't understand how electives fit into this.

"Race to the Top," eh?

Teachers should become like those working private sector jobs and "accept" that they can be fired for no good reason... not the other way around. "That's just how it works," paraphrasing the free-market apologists.

Well that's a great idea for those who are laughing all the way to the bank... namely the people who run big business in our society who (coincidentally?) sit on all the educational reformer/philanthropic boards promoting such nonsense. For the rest of us, well... some of us are just a bit more masochistic than others.

I, for one, prefer a more just society. Maybe even our students will take notice. Call me naive.

I'd like to share some of my own opinions about salaries and merit pay.

During the 42 years that I taught, I applied for positions in several school districts in three states. At no time did I ask what the salary was. Making a lot of money was never that important to me; I just wanted a teaching job.

In the early 1990s my district offered a "mentor teacher" position that paid a stipend of $4000 per year. I know now that this was "merit pay" but at the time I thought it was extra pay for extra work because I had to mentor other teachers. Out of 40 teachers only two of us applied for this position. We were interviewed and observed by other teachers and had to have references from other employees in the district. Both of us were appointed as mentors. I kept the position for six years.

Soon after my appointment I realized that I wasn't really required to do extra work. At this point I understood that I had received a stipend as a reward for good teaching. The other teachers seemed happy for me, but other than the one teacher, no one else applied for the position during a period of six years. I didn't feel any resentment from my colleagues.

Did this money improve my teaching? Not that I'm aware of, but it helped with my sons' college expenses. I was glad to have the extra money at a time when tuition payments topped $30,000 a year.

What did motivate me to do a better job? I'll try to list them in order of importance:

Supportive parents.

Small classes (20) and support from other professionals.

Time to plan lessons.

Being asked to help other teachers. Each time I was asked to help a new or struggling teacher, I spent hours preparing for my meetings with that person. I'd hone my skills on my own class before conferring with the other teacher.

Professional materials and conferences. I always enjoyed reading Education Week, The Reading Teacher, and the Harvard Education Letter. It would have been nice if the district paid for them. Also, I enjoyed going to conferences and got a lot out of them. Sometimes the district would pay and sometimes they didn't. But I always went.

Professional respect. Some principals and superintendents treated me as a valued professional and asked for my advice. These people always got more from me than administrators who saw me as "lesser than." Sadly many administrators would "die" if they had to "go back to the classroom" and this attitude is obvious and hurtful to teachers.

Collaboration. I learned a great deal when I met with other teachers but our time together was very short. Also, working with well-educated administrators who respected my work was extremely beneficial.

Trust. For the bulk of my career I was trusted to do the best job I could possibly do. Like many teachers I spent week nights, weekends and summer vacations getting ready for the next day, the next week, or the next year. However, once NCLB came, administrators started to pressure me to teach in a way that I did not feel was in the best interest of my students. When this happened I quickly became disillusioned and somewhat "burned-out." Of course this had a very negative effect on my teaching but I was old enough to retire and that's what I did.

In summation, merit pay will probably not improve teachers because teachers are usually not motivated by money.

The delivery of quality lessons, designed to engage children and to promote their active participation in the learning process, requires extensively layered planning and preparation. I do not believe teachers reject the ideas of school reform or merit pay. We do not work in a vacuum. We understand, more than anyone with a stake in this, the inherent problems with the status quo.

We do, however, balk at the absence of a clear plan for the effective implementation of merit pay.

Merit pay is a complex subject matter. It deserves careful analysis and development. President Obama speaks from both corners of his mouth when he says he does not want to stifle creativity in devising plans for improved achievement, but then forces states to comply with his ideas for accountability by insisting on rules such as eliminating quotas on charter schools and threatening to withhold taxpayer funds.

There is little time for using merit pay as a "lab experiement" if we are going to Race to the Top within the President's timeline. We would all frown upon a classroom full of students who were coerced into "learning."

Yet, this is another example of a worthy goal, supported by the President, which is void of a clear direction on HOW to achieve it. We would not allow our students to prepare a formal essay without mapping out a strategy for reaching the conclusion. It is expected that teachers prepare meaningful lessons with a clear purpose and plan for achieving the objectives. I think it reasonable to expect the same from the supporters of school reform.

And.... in terms of assessing MERIT .... Ed Jones.... I certainly hope you were not implying that band is not worthy of inclusion as an integral component of adolescent education.

Who deserves the merit pay.... my algebra teacher who took two years to help me learn it... or my high school band director who saved me from dropping out of school when I was 16... and then challenged me so much that I went from being the worst saxophone player in the band, to playing bassoon professionally at age 19 ?

Last year, my school received a bonus check from the state because our school's "grade" (based on the students' standardized test scores) improved from a "C" to a "B."

As a faculty, we voted to give equal shares of the money to EVERYONE on the staff (including custodians, secretaries, cafeteria workers, groundskeepers, guidance counselors, etc.) Why?

Because who can say which of us influenced the right combination of kids, from our highest performers to our lowest quartile, to try a little harder?

Knowledge and skill acquisition does not travel smoothly down an assembly line because children do not develop that way. Progress, if it were projected onto paper, would look like a stock analysis, jaggedly moving up and down with extreme highs and lows. As investors in each of our children, we use systematic planning and delivery to balance the arhythmia and facilitate what will, in retrospect, be an upward trend of progress.

I frequently receive "thank you's" from the current sophomores, juniors, and seniors who are succeeding now, but fared poorly in my class as freshmen. Some even failed.
Inspiration, encouragement, and yes.... even comprehension skills are often not immdediate, measureable manifestations. They may be hidden away periodically, until maturity catches up. Do their 10th grade teachers deserve the credit for all the learning gains demonstrated on the 10th grade test?

Former Teacher--I read the Dispatch as well, so I understand the "rap back" reporting system as it was described today in conjunction with a teacher who was put immediately on paid administrative leave (yesterday) when the FBI and others discovered that he had 2,000 some items of child pornography on his home computer. I don't count this as a bad thing. I also don't count as a bad thing that he is still getting paid (despite the numbers of parents and others calling for his head, and other body parts, on a platter--now!). He's entitled to his day in court, and whatever due process is available to him.

I also poked around ODE's website and came up with an annual report for teacher discipline/investigation and such. There has in fact been an increase in the number of referrals from various sources--the largest category being licensure application, along with required background checks. The biggest increase in reporting was from districts--however, even though the number doubled--it was still only 300 for the state, not a stand-out.

I also did not see a category that might cover "not teaching" or "not teaching very well." The categories included things like theft, drug use, violence, neglect, emotional mistreatment. The only things where teachers might lose licenses from something that is not in fact also illegal to do anywhere outside of school were broken contract and testing violation--and both of these had declined in the last year. And I could count either one of them without having to use toes.

Now, maybe you have some better data, but I don't see much to support your suggestion that teachers could not only lose jobs but also lose licenses if anyone were to begin to think that should in fact be responsible for some teaching, and maybe of all the kids.

Jason: Gee, and I've been working so hard here toward an unjust society, and here you have unmasked us paid toadies of the rich. Now that a white knight has arrived, I'll be unable to laugh my way to the bank. Nuts!

... What? We don't have to cede the moral high ground to the uninformed? Sweet! Then lets learn.

Free markets are not, mi amigo, something that need apologists. Free markets simply are, like other forces of the universe. Gravity, love, electromagnetic attraction, friction, thermodynamic equilibrium, price equilibrium--these are all aspects of the universe as we observe it. One could no more defend a free market than they could defend homeostasis.

Free markets do (in our modern society) require introduction and illumination to the unlearned; just as quantum mechanics and microbiology require some small amount of tutoring to unmask their more subtle ways.

Now, it's true that this education wasn't nearly so necessary at the time of the Revolution. People could see that the navigation acts unduly limited trade and thus the growth of individual prosperity. Things alas are no longer so clear to the casual observer.

Today, both the complexity of our economy and the willful distribution of mis-information cloud the thinking of ordinary citizens and pundits alike. It's not easy! Especially when time is dear. Yet let us here at Bridging be a bit more educated; let us view free markets as more than a flip turn of phrase to be excoriated at each opportunity.

A free market, then, is the initial state, the status quo when people have goods and services to trade.

A government can choose policies which allow free markets to work for the most people (e.g. enforcing property rights) or policies which try to pretend the market can be thwarted (redlining minorities in cities to theoretically reduce mortgage risk for others). Sometimes market intervention pays off for many decades (free public education). Sometimes we learn the hard way that laws can delay pain but not avoid it in the long run (rent control laws).

Free markets generally are not what is alluded to by writers here in these pages. For example, the Collateralized Debt Obligations, infamous of last year for bringing down the big investment houses and many small municipal investors, seemed at the face to be the free-est sort of financial instrument. In layman's terms, the government appeared totally hands-off. Yet peel back the surface layers of info, and one finds that CDO's were allowed to unnaturally boom-not by too little government oversight, but by Congress giving unnaturally powerful blessings to just a handful (way too few) securities ratings firms. Disaster resulted.

OK, so CDO's are an obscure thing, far from everyday experience. Yet people on this page talk of Business as some black box, not as groups of real human beings, most all struggling at their particular station, trying to make it to the end of the day not much worse and maybe a bit better than the day before. Many acted upon by forces they sometimes dislike or sometimes erroneously embrace. Not much unlike yourselves.

All of which is to say that a 'just society" requires us to learn quite a bit.

Linda says teachers are not motivated by money and lists many agreeable contributors to educational success. No issues. But I don't really believe that the average programmer at Apple or the pharmacist at Drugmart, or the assistant producer at Food Network are all that much more greedy money-hungry scum than the noble teacher.

However, I have had friends and I know you all have too, friends who 3 or 5 or 7 years into their teaching career start counting the years to retirement! How awful!

"A free market, then, is the initial state, the status quo when people have goods and services to trade."

I don't even know were to begin in trying to unpack the hidden assumptions, circular reasoning, and historical obfuscation that are in Ed's post. A free market is the status quo when people want to trade? Delete the word "free" and you have a nearly perfect tautology. (And frankly how do we know that these the naturally occurring markets are "free" in any significant sense. Where is Fallon when you need him to explain? I've got the horses and the swords, you've got the grain, I "sell" the service of protection, you are, of course, free to decline my services, but accidents may happen--from such "free" markets are princes, governments, and mobsters made.)

Ed, I don't doubt your sincerity, and I can even understand the necessity of gross simplification to fit into a readable post, but that hubris it takes to write a post like this and then open it by calling someone else "uninformed" is a bit much for me. I disagree about with you about the merits of market mechanisms like merit pay for teachers, I find your view of the likely long run of consequences of merit pay to be a classic example of the triumph of hope over experience. I am glad, however, to read your opinions and see the world from a different perspective. Why not cut the rest of us some slack, and try to give us the same benefit of the doubt, rather than dismissing our disagreement as "uninformed." Your proclaimed expertise on how-the-real-world-works, how-engineers-do-it, how-markets-(always)-work, is precisely the kind of arrogance that you dismiss when educators ignore your view because they say you don't know anything about education. I'm certainly no economics expert, but I know enough to know your version isn't the whole or only story. Take a look at "The Mystery of Capital" by de Soto, Schumpeter's classic "Capitialism, Socialism, and Democracy," Schwartz's "States vs. Markets" for some more contextualized perspectives on "free" markets.

For the record, I am a teacher, and I would love to have merit pay in teaching if I believed that it would be based on some consensus market mechanisms . . . is there demand for the kind of education that I produce, I believe there is, and would be quite willing to bet my livelihood on it. I predict, however, that the kind of merit currently proposed is very unlikely to be of that variety, rather it will be a narrow test-score-only kind of merit. Should states and districts be allowed to experiment with it so that they may prove me wrong . . . Absolutely, if that is what they wish to do. Should the Feds require it as a condition of stimulus during an economic downturn . . . That doesn't really sound a like an data-gathering experiment to me.


Not sure what you've been working at, but I know what you're getting at. There are about a million economists (not to mention scientists) coming from almost every political viewpoint who might dispute your self-authoritative "lesson," not that I'd agree with even half of them either... so I'll just take it with a grain of salt. In the interest of moving on to the more micro-issues of education and merit pay, I'll spare you a refutation lecture in return.


The data, or lack thereof, that you checked regarding losing licenses is exactly why one should cast a wary eye upon the accuracy and meaning of the data.

There's one school in our district that had a principal with a reputation of going after people's licenses when he didn't like their teaching, or had personal issues with them. He didn't just let them go, he took away their right to work in education forever, many times dubiously. He could make up any excuse he wanted and did, and his formal reasons never fell into any category you might be looking for in the data. Data is very manipulatible (is that a word?). When it is used for a variety of high-stakes decisions it is practically useless when one considers the politics surrounding it.

Another time there were a relatively high number of injuries during PE classes one semester. The principal told the teachers he couldn't have so many injury reports, it wasn't good for the school. Reports, that is...

As Mark Twain states, "There are lies... there are damn lies... and then there are statistics."

I didn't say the "rap back" system was bad. In fact, I said the background checks, the "rap back" system, and the new Licensure Code of Conduct were good.

In the 2008 Annual Report of the Office of Professional Conduct, all the numbers are explained except the severity of punishments. They state simply that they have increased for the "Conduct Unbecoming" cases (42%), but they don't say why or whether it is good or bad.


Thank you! "Data is very manipulatible (is that a word?). When it is used for a variety of high-stakes decisions it is practically useless when one considers the politics surrounding it."

And nice Twain quote.


I enjoyed your question with the accompanying list. I believe most teachers would have similar motivations for doing a good job.

I also believe if every teacher included self motivation on their list, the notion that they do the best they can at whatever they're doing because that's they way they were raised, then there probably would be no need to discuss an alternative pay scheme for teachers. However, we can probably all agree that is not the case in our schools today.

Is merit pay the answer for our schools? It may well not be and it certainly has the possibility at being a flop depending on how it is proposed and eventually implemented. But SOMETHING different is needed to replace the existing debacle.

Personally, I liked Rory's example from above, at least as a start.

"As a faculty, we voted to give equal shares of the money to EVERYONE on the staff (including custodians, secretaries, cafeteria workers, groundskeepers, guidance counselors, etc.) Why?

Because who can say which of us influenced the right combination of kids, from our highest performers to our lowest quartile, to try a little harder?"

This could work and work well for two reasons. It sounds fair and it reverberates with reasonableness, two components conspicuously absent from the existing system of teacher evaluations in our schools today.

Linda, you closed by stating, "In summation, merit pay will probably not improve teachers because teachers are usually not motivated by money." Here's where we'd probably part company just a smidgen.

I believe, right or wrong, in a free market economy. If a person performs their job better than their counterpart they should be rewarded for their efforts. I believe that goes a long way toward explaining the success (at least until recently) of the ethos of this country. Work hard and you should be rewarded, not just in knowing you've done your job and done it well but also financially. Slack off and you should also be remunerated accordingly.

This philosophy has been what's lacking in our schools and not just for the professionals. This union indoctrinated civil service mentality that everyone is on the same salary schedule hypnotized too many promising teachers into careers of complacency. I saw it all to often in three and a half decades of teaching.

Why should I stay up late tonight and correct that stack of essays? I know Mrs. So Andso never corrects anything and she still gets a pay check every two weeks. And she's been that way her entire career and never lifted a finger to improve her craft. Yeh, I should know better. I'm not that kind of person. I should not model myself after her. But it's after nine now and I have to get up early. I can always correct that stack of essays another time.

The kids. Remember why we're there in the first place? We're supposed to be there to help children learn and get along in life, to be better citizens. What kind of role models do the Mrs. So Andsos portray for kids? NOT GOOD.

Keith above would be much more admirable here if he took Jason to task for his spurious jump to a "Just Society".

There's nothing just about the status quo in education, not if you're in rural Ohio and were never introduced to the Roman Empire, and not if you're poor and Black in Detroit and 60+% of your brothers are dropping out, left to fend with no diploma in a world where that is the ticket to a job and a tolerable life.

On the contrary, Ed, I followed the connection made by Jason. To my eye he was responding to Margo/Mom's claim that she had been fired from jobs without any good reason, and that such situation was simply a fact of "real" world that teachers had managed to unfairly circumvent with their diabolical unions. He suggested that rather than letting teachers be fired for arbitrary reasons, maybe we ought to try to make sure that no one ought to get fired for arbitrary reasons. Further I took this to be the more "just society" that he would like to work towards. He simply believes that free markets are more likely to enrich a few than to create a more just society. A debatable proposition to be sure, one on which reasonable people can disagree, but I did not take from his post the implication that he thought Margo/Mom was plotting to create an unjust society.

To be fair, Jason's use of the word "apologist" probably comes closest to Ed's use of "uninformed," insofar as it implies that supporters of free markets haven't really thought their positions through. Of course, some them have and some of them haven't. My argument is simply that all things being equal, we are better off assuming that people are reasonably knowledgeable, and that disagreements are mysteries to explore (Hmm, how could a reasonable person disagree with me so vehemently) rather than obvious evidence of the ignorance of one of the parties.

Back to the topic at hand Paul writes: "If a person performs their job better than their counterpart they should be rewarded for their efforts. Work hard and you should be rewarded. . . "

Here I think you conflate "better" with "work harder." An ideal free market (admittedly, a rare breed) doesn't care a wit how hard you work, it only cares how well you work. As has been debated here "better" in teaching is pretty hard to measure, but "working hard" less so. In some ways the current step and column system is "working hard," it is not necessarily better. The key questions for merit pay are 1. What counts as "better"? 2. Who decides? 3. How is it measured? I agree that "better" teachers should be paid more. . . but I doubt there is much consensus in society about "better" means. This by the way is one of the places a free market might be useful, (if they are possible in public education) . . . helping us collectively negotiate manifold conceptions of "better." education

It seems to me that much of this discussion is symptomatic of black-white thinking. If I refuse to be alarmed that in Ohio teachers can now be let go for "good and just cause," this gets translated into a belief that unions are diabolical. My point is that there is not much traction to an argument that suggests that teachers are deserving of a far higher level of protection than the rest of us poor schmucks laboring out here in the fields. Previous to this small change in the law, teachers could only be fired for the moral equivalent of "buggering the bursar." And, for those who prefer anecdotal evidence to data--there has always been ample anecdotal evidence of passing the trash at the local level rather than actually following through on required reporting mechanisms that might result in the surrender of a license. In addition, multiple systems (confounded in Ohio by the existence of 88 separate county child protection agencies, many more than that school districts and local law enforcement agencies) of responsibilty haven't always worked and played well. Ohio's particular manure hit the fan in the same week that similar efforts were reported nationally. In this case, the only resulting change in regulations had to do with cleaning up the mechanisms of required reporting.

Ohio is also the state in which a district has had a very difficult time in firing a science teacher accused of teaching creationism and improperly using lab tools, resulting in injury to a student. Due process continues. This, however, has nothing to do with loss of license. The teacher has in fact been able to pick up employment in some other teaching arena (a charter school, I believe).

Now, maybe the state is fudging the figures. However, State Board of Ed meetings are public. Licensing decisions are generally reported in newspapers when local teachers are involved. So far as I have seen, they generally involve such things as theft and drug use--and the occasional battering of a student. I don't have time to go back through Board minutes for the last year--but again these are public and available on the web, so to suggest that there is some kind of conspiracy begins to sound like the folks who think that the State of Hawaii is covering up something about the President's birth.

But--again--to my mind, all of this is beside the point, which is whether or not teacher outcomes ought to be considered as a part of teacher evaluations, and whether evaluations should have an impact on salary. There's not likely to be any helpful answers until we can stop arguing from the fringes.


I will respond to your previous comment here so that you will see it. It is still on topic somewhat. You write:


You write very well and can articulate your points, and those of the CATO Institute, to a degree that suggests that public schools served you well. Just out of curiosity, how are the pot holes on your street repaired?"

I am not so much a fan of CATO. With their posh offices on Mass Ave in DC; backing by corporate donors such as the Koch brothers, two of the richest guys you never heard of; patent for Chicago School economics (utilitarian mathematical modeling; and, their focus on getting political power that actually dovetails with their compromised definition of 'libertarianism': it is quite mistaken to associate their ideas, on balance anyway, with me.

I am, however, a huge fan of the Mises Institute of Auburn, Alabama, far away from the Imperial Center. This is where you will find Austrian Economics, free market thinking void of positivism and pro-government attitudes. I would be proud to be associated with the ideas of such greats as Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek, Eugen Bohm-Bawerk, Carl Menger....

A simple difference between the Chicago School (like Cato) and the Austrian School is on the vouchers question. Milton Friedman, one of the Chicago School dons, advocated for vouchers in order to inject some market forces into the system. On the other hand, the Austrians' Rothbard and Mises advocated for the complete separation of state and school because vouchers still left control in the government's hands. How can you have a real free market without actual private property in all phases of production?

Another big difference between CATO and Mises is their stances on central banking and the Federal Reserve. CATO wants to keep the Fed as long as it is managed by Chicago School monetarists. The Austrian School, in contrast, has been the most consistent advocate of abolishing central banks and fiat currency. Many Austrians, like Congressman Ron Paul, want a return to a gold standard. Hayek thought that currencies should be denationalized.

Of course, there is tremendous debate inside the school paradigm, which I am simplifying for practical purposes.

re: Potholes. Funny you should ask. I just sued my city for $300, which they paid, because of their countless potholes that they do not fix. Why would they want to? What can anybody do to make the government accountable? Without market responses how does the government know whether they should continue to fix potholes or build anew? Where to build? With what? On what time frame? For how much $?

Politics does not decide things economically or based on rights.

The best solution is to privatize all the roads and services. This should make sane the incentives and allocations.

Government ownership is/has always bad. Have you noticed that the highway make-work stimulus a la Mussolini projects are done on roads that don't need it? Do you recall the racist placements of highways in and around Chicago thanks to the original Mayor Dailey's influence?


Here we are talking about potholes and the merits of the "free market" when even a proponent of the "great free market thinkers," as prominent as Alan Greenspan admits that the free market failed. Have you read the news of the last year or so? The Government all-but nationalized the banking system, and we're in the middle of a recession.

The ideological strutting begs the serious matters of the thread: Does Merit Pay Make Sense?" But irrespective of the topic of the thread, the same ideology is repeated.

Dick Schutz,

The Fed is not a free market institution. Neither is Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, the Community Reinvestment Act and a plethora of other legislations that, combined with the Fed's inflation, led to the boom/bust. The bust, btw, could have been rectified by avoiding any further government intervention. Greenspan is not the same person who, as a member of the Ayn Rand Circle, advocated for the gold standard back in the '60s.

However, Fed Chief Bernanke, following the Friedman/Greenspan/Chicago School interpretation of the Great Depression-in which they posit that the Fed should have pumped substantially more credit to get out of said GD- has inflated the monetary base (read: payoff to banks in form of reserves) in a way that has never been seen before in the US.

How about that for a hockey stick! And it is the politically disconnected that are getting whacked. The banks and rich are being saved from the brunt of their actions while evictions and the rise in unemployment continues...

The crash, an inevitable result of nonmarket control, has led to further theft and destruction because of the political class's ability to do so and the faulty ideas rationalizing it. And you, a thoughtful, educated and enterprising gentlemen, only add to the problem by confusing state capitalism and interventionism with free markets.

The Depression of 1920 recovery happened without further government interventions, and in less than two years, btw. The GD turmoil went on until just after WWII.

The differences between the Austrian and Chicago Schools are indeed paramount. Although I know you meant to be dismissive with your comment on ideology, there is some truth in what you say. The important thing, though, is to evaluate ideas for their reasonableness. You have your ideas too- which I debunk substantively.

If you hold an opinion on Merit Pay, implied in that opinion is an economic outlook that is either sound or lacking. The predominance of faulty economic ideas on this blog lends empirical support to pinpointing why public schools churn out millions of kids whom willingly and ignorantly acquiesce in their own enslavement.

If you want an accessible yet masterful Austrian take on the crash please see Tom Woods' work, "Meltdown".


Hi Dick,

I tried to reply to you but the Bridging Differences censors are holding my comment incommunicado.

Fallon, if you used more than one hyperlink, that usually grounds the comments.

Dick, Greenspan has his peculiarities, not least of which is a bit too much of a worship of Ayn Rand. Nonetheless, the problems leading to last September were hardly caused by no regulation, but by far too much bad regulation.

If you have not watched the Frontline program Inside the Meltdown, that will get you pretty far. However, there's still some back story as to why 1) all these bad home loans came to be (Hint, blaming it on the producers doesn't go far enough), and 2) why Moody's et al came to have so much power with so little review (hint, check again at the corner of E. Capitol St. and N. Capitol St.)

The problem in a nutshell is that the US Government granted excessive power to both the producers--by insisting that everyone get loans ability to repay be damned--and the securities ratings firms--by other pieces of legislation making them more powerful than the market would otherwise have made them.

This super-blessing given the ratings firms allowed the banks to peddle horrible risked securities to unsuspecting buyers by dint of a magical AAA rating.

Finally, the implicit government guarantee of these homeloans made the banks throw caution to the wind in even those cases where they did have freedom to reject the applicants. Of course, it turned out the banks read the situation right--the big ones took no risk at all in writing these loans, they just got their Congressmen to shove the loss onto us, a fine business decision on the banks' part, though not Congress!

Alas, since Congress won't be learning these lessons until at least Nov 2010, we won't be reading much about them. Still, I would argue that we got into the problems of the past few decade in Education precisely because the State Education Associations were handed similar unearned powers to rate and review innovation, growth, and advancement in how we educate kids.

Is the solution to bad regulation no regulation or better regulation?

"Is the solution to bad regulation no regulation or better regulation?"

That depends on whether one advocates competing in a global economy with a hunting and gathering society sophistication. "No regulation" is a fantasy. Free marketers who blame the government rather than the free market for the economic meltdown are in an Alice in Wonderland world.

"That depends on whether one advocates competing in a global economy with a hunting and gathering society sophistication. "No regulation" is a fantasy."

NO regulation seems indeed a fantasy, but minimal, or decreased, regulation is not. Consider how our "hunting and gathering" society did in the 1990s vis-a-vis the Japanese more regulated and centralized society, with their Kereitsus and MITI.

Has the banking failure and the all-but nationalization of the banking system escaped your notice? Have you heard ANY economist advocating "minimal or decreased regulation" recently? Any chance of getting back on topic?

The Fed Reserve was part of that flurry of modern regulation creation called the Progressive Era. Gabriel Kolko has called this a time when conservatism triumphed because most of these new agencies and regulatory frameworks benefitted the status quo, especially business and banking.

Thomas DiLorenzo points out that the late 19th century was characterized by an increase in competition-not the other way around as the standard textbook would have it. Hmm, so much for the rationale of "anti-trust". Almost all monopolies in the US are created by the government.

Alan Stone says that Progressive Era legislations consciously aimed at removing decision making power from the hands of the common folk in effort to create "rule by experts". This was the dawn of scientific management and yet also a time of populist upheavals. The elites needed a way to circumvent the loss of power in economic interests yet make it seem "progressive". It was ok to control social behavior via Prohibition, but the elites were not going to let the same restriction be applied to their interests. The Fed represents a masterpiece creation: it seemed progressive, limited the power of the people, and yet actually increased the power of the entities that were supposed to be regulated.

Throughout most of history economic relations have been heavily regulated by the likes of kings, barons, boards, commissar's, and other positions of status. It was not until the classic liberal revolutions that something like an industrial revolution could happen.

Regulation, then, is a term that denotes societal relationships based on status and should be seen in this conservative light.

That the Fed was responsible for the initial boom/bust of both the Great Depression and the recent crash of the mortgage market should be ample evidence that "regulation" by status is a primitive notion. Of course certain banks would be nationalized and bailed out at the expense of the common man. That was the real point all along. That is what status entails.

Another e.g., the SEC was warned on several occasions about Bernie Madoff and did nothing. In fact, the rate of profit in the stock market has not really changed since the SEC's inception. What does that say?

Regulation by status also kills. How many people die when the FDA drags its feet?

The statist regulatory framework is an enslaving one.

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