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Friday, August 03, 2007

The “merit pay” sham

Even liberals sometimes get caught up in reflexively nodding their heads at this concept: sure, it works in private business, why not in public school teachers? The businesspeople who get put on various commissions to fix our educational systems certainly take it as gospel: pay for performance. Who can argue with that? If it’s good enough for me, it should be good enough for them. They are the people, you know, who haven’t set foot in a school since they were students, and certainly would have zero clue how to operate in an inner city school with kids whose parents are (or, tragically too often, whose parent is) not “the right kind,” but that doesn’t stop them from confidently declaring the steps that should be taken to fix the problems. Kind of like I, a first grade teacher, thinking my Golden Apple award qualifies me to tell the American auto companies how to stop losing market share to foreign-based competitors.

Of course, the fact that teachers unions object to merit pay is proof-positive that merit pay is a good idea, because unions are selfish and only care about the economic interests of their members, which is terrible -- unless, of course, you are talking about business, where caring about your economic interests is OK. Wait. Aren’t we trying to say the schools should be run more like businesses? But these are teachers, and teachers are supposed to be caring like mom was and like they used to be when I was growing up, not selfish, so they should be looking out after the national interest instead of their own economic interest, although, granted, we are trying to get them to compete tooth-and-nail with economic incentives. Talk about a logical mish-mash.

I have long argued that the merit-pay-for-teachers movement is one of the most supremely stupid ideas of our time. It deserves none of the lip service or the modicum of respect that liberals looking for centrist cred or the image of being “balanced” sometimes give it, even as they then proceed to disagree with it. It has no more validity than would merit pay for police officers or fire fighters of the same rank, for enlisted soldiers, for Members of Congress, because it rests entirely on a premise derived from right-wing political philosophy: that people do not perform to their capabilities without a monetary reward for the extra effort and skill. It assumes that whatever problems we have in the U.S. educational system can be traced to a defective incentive structure for teachers – a defect shared by 50 states run by stupid people insufficiently schooled in Ayn Rand, and thousands of school districts also run by stupid people who just happen to be stupid members of the community. Somehow, some way, they have all been stupid enough in unison, a gigantic national herd of buffalo charging in the same direction for over 100 years, to make exactly the same mistake throughout the country.

But where is there the slightest bit of empirical evidence that (a) the incentive structure for teachers is wrong in the first place – that a sense of public service is inevitably inadequate as an incentive structure for people even though they deliberately selected a profession universally known not to be highly lucative -- and (b) that flaws in the incentive structure have any causal relationship to failures in the schools? Both of those propositions must be established. Given 100-plus years of virtually identical decisions not to adopt so-called merit pay systems in every state across the country, most of which period occurred long before teachers unions existed or mattered, the burden of proof is obviously on those who would make a radical change in the system. Any good conservative believes that.

There is no such evidence, of course, and there never will be. In fact, there is many centuries worth of overwhelming evidence that people who choose public service for their careers, once they get past the threshold of an acceptable income for their efforts and experience, have little interest in additional monetary rewards. So we are going to spend the tens of billions of dollars it would take to implement even a shoddy system of evaluating and grading the performance of every teacher in every school in every school district in the country on a hunch, on an ideologically-generated assumption with zero supporting evidence, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the system suffers from the failure to build in monetary incentives? I am all ears for why such an iffy national experiment is not another example of stupidity that flows out of right-wing ideology. Through all the flak that defenders would fling at this challenge, keep in mind the one single question that they simply cannot and never will be able to answer: where is the evidence that problems in public schools, any more than the failure of the police to stop all crimes, or of the military to win all wars immediately, or Congress to pass legislation that makes the country into Nirvana, can be traced to the lack of monetary reward for better performance? Without that, the whole notion is a total sham that should be laughed into oblivion.

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