I talked to a Spanish teacher in a suburban Boston public high school last night. She expressed her disapproval of the idea of merit pay for teachers. “Some of my students hate their parents and some have been sexually abused,” she noted, “but my salary is supposed to be based on their performance?”
I responded that I thought the deeper question was how school administrators would evaluate merit. I asked “What incentive does a school administrator have to do a good job evaluating merit, or indeed, to do any work at all?” The teacher said “none, especially if they are a member of a protected minority group. They can’t be fired, no matter how little they do.” That made sense to me; the school is guaranteed to get nearly all of the students in the town regardless of whether or not the administrators do anything (few parents can afford to pay property taxes that fund public schools and then pay private school tuition as well). Wasn’t a teacher also guaranteed customers even if she didn’t work? “You have to try to sell the students at the beginning of the year that the class will be fun. Otherwise it is just unpleasant to sit with them for the remaining 8 months. If I’m incompetent and lazy, I will still get the same paycheck and the same number of students, but it will be tedious to share a classroom with unhappy students. That’s my incentive to work.”
Reflecting on this conversation, I was surprised that anyone thinks merit pay will work. Restaurants aren’t very important to our society or our future. Great empires have been built by countries with bad restaurants. Yet nobody would propose having restaurant compensation be determined by a government bureaucracy assigning “merit” to each restaurant. We allow citizens to choose which restaurant to visit and eventually the bad restaurants wither away and disappear due to lack of customers. Short of something like that in public education, how would we ever expect quality to improve? Wouldn’t parents and kids, simply by talking amongst themselves, quickly figure out who were the effective teachers and try to crowd into their classrooms, abandoning the ineffective teachers. An administrator looking for “merit” would simply need to count heads in the classroom and/or pay a teacher according to the number of kids who signed up (this is how education has worked for most of human history, actually; our current bureaucratized and tenured system is a relatively recent innovation; current “merit pay”).
I circled back later to the Spanish teacher and asked her if parents and kids knew who the good teachers were. “Of course. There is a huge amount of pushing by parents and kids to get into the best teachers’ classes. But at the end of the day the worst teachers still get a more or less full classroom and a full paycheck as well.”
[The complex merit pay schemes so far don’t seem to have worked, e.g., see this story on Nashville schools. Why isn’t anyone anywhere seriously considering the “parents/kids get to choose their school and teacher” approach? I don’t think it is fair to say that charter schools represent full choice because they don’t get anywhere near the funding of public schools (see this study on how the cost of public schools, if normal accounting measures are used, is much higher than quoted). Anyway, charter schools are hugely complex to set up. Assuming a normal distribution of effectiveness, the public schools already contain millions of above-average teachers. Without building any new buildings or setting up any new infrastructure, we could presumably improve outcomes simply by allowing those above-average teachers to attract more students.]