Monday, February 8, 2010

Merit Pay is Nothing New

Merit pay, or pay-for-performance, along with charter schools and standardized testing, is one of the key platforms of today's education reformers, among them senior Obama cabinet officials like Arne Duncan.  As I've written about earlier, even taken as a group these so-called reforms are laughably inadequate to truly address the fundamental problems in American education.

In order to do merit pay, you need to have data on teacher effectiveness.  But therein lies the problem: teacher-effectiveness models must be treated with extreme caution.  In order to be fair, they must be accurate.  And how you get accurate data is a problem that has always plagued the concept.  Salary rates are currently not based on effectiveness for precisely this reason.

I was recently flipping through a handbook published in the early sixties for beginning teachers. It was an odd book really, covering everything from pedagogy to budget considerations. The references to segregation were pretty fascinating. But in a section on salary it outlined today’s debate perfectly – stating that the difficulty in pay-for-performance comes in developing an accurate model for what that effectiveness really looks like.
Merit pay be eventually be done right. Although if it isn’t I won’t be too concerned – teachers don’t do it for the money. But the idea that it is going to be an effective element of reform is naive.
That we’ve been having this debate for half a century tells you A)the concept is nothing new and B) it’s a complex issue with no clear solutions.

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