Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Viable Improvement Policies Don't Include Merit Pay


One of the prospective replacements for Gordon Campbell as leader of the BC Liberal Party (and also therefore the Premier’s job) has proposed a system of merit pay for teachers.  Of course this prospective Premier has not given any details as to how such a scheme might work, he couldn’t, because nobody has yet come up with a truly effective model for such a scheme.  More than any actual policy statement, the pronouncement was clearly just political blustering.  But now that the subject has moved into the spotlight, let’s take a closer look at it.

First (and only) question, “How would you decide which teachers deserve merit pay?”  There are a few options here, but all of them open up some pretty wriggly cans of worms.  However, the most common answer we hear is some variation on the theme, “We’ll base merit pay on how students in each teacher’s class perform on standardized tests, and look at those results year over year.”  Such models, often dubbed “value added models” (VAM) appeal to those who see all education as something that can be quantified, tested and reported on.  This, of course, is simplistic and flawed thinking.  But apparently behaviourism is alive and well amongst a significant portion of the population!  What about the teacher who each year volunteers to teach “at risk” students?  Most people would agree that helping a class full of these students simply to graduate is far more challenging (and possibly rewarding) than helping a class full of academic students to improve their “A”s to higher “A”s.  VAM models can’t effectively take this into account.  Another problem with these models is that it’s notoriously difficult to test higher order thinking skills with standardized tests, so students who do well on standardized tests may well have missed out on learning higher order skills.  A close analysis of the Gates Foundation’s “Measures of Effective Teaching” (MET) Project shows that there is at best a weak correlation between a teacher’s VAM score and her student’s results on higher order thinking assessments.

This leads us to possibly the strongest argument against VAM merit pay schemes.  If we start rewarding teachers according to how their students do on tests, teachers will inevitably start “teaching to the test”.  Indeed, such a system would encourage it.  But this reductionist definition of teaching and learning is antithetical to what the vast majority of educators in BC know to be true.  This is why the majority of teachers themselves, even many of those who would qualify for merit pay, reject the idea.  The idea of merit pay for teachers has been around forever, or at least since 1908, but the elephant in the room is, and always has been how to quantify efficacy in teaching.  Basing merit pay on standardized test results, or improved overall averages, risks moving the whole system in the wrong direction.

The idea of merit pay is raised, mostly by economists and politicians, as a relatively simple way to improve education.  Or at least that’s the theory anyway.  Would merit pay for politicians and economists get us more effective policies and more sound economics?  If only it were so easy.  There are far more cost effective ways to improve education, the simplest being to start funding our system as it should be funded.

There’s currently a lot of talk around the Richmond District of how the latest “budget crisis” has affected life at the schools.  The consensus seems to be that this year’s shortfall has left us with no choice but to do less.  But no one thing can be completely dropped; those things all disappeared a while back.  Instead we’re just doing some things less well.  Any way you slice it, it’s death by a thousand cuts (morbid pun intended).  It becomes an even more daunting task to get from good to better when we’re perpetually fighting just to maintain what we have.

Finally, here’s a straightforward question to ponder, “Why, in one of the richest provinces, in one of the richest countries in the world are we, as a society, underfunding our public education system?”  If asked to list areas where judicious funding would help improve our system, any teacher or administrator that I know would have a plethora of great ideas.  Merit pay would not be among them.