27 May 2009

Merit Pay?

A decade and so ago I was a member of a sports club. We had a lot of football (soccer) teams. I coached youth teams for years and years. And I was thinking about this experience as I listened to one more sad attempt by one more US Secretary of Education to insist that merit pay for teachers is the most critical change we need in our education system.

When I was coaching we usually had enough kids to create two, three, or four teams at any given age class. Unlike many other clubs we did not try to create A, B, and C teams. Rather, we tried to create somewhat even teams where the "better" players might demonstrate their leadership.

Each year we'd split up these boys, and each year we'd end up with one team that seemed, ummm, "challenging." These kids were in special education services at school, or had families in trouble, or somehow just didn't fit in. We ended up with that team because every year I'd just say, when others complained about trying to coach "kids like that," I'd say, "put him on my team."

You know, usually, the other teams would do better in the league than we did. Sure we kept getting better, yes, we had a lot of fun, but problems perpetually struck, and we lost many, many games.

Now, none of us got paid, but in Arne Duncan's world, if we had been paid, I would have been paid less. This is because Duncan combines a terrible assessment system (the standardized test) with a terrible assessment period (a school year) to come up with a terrible way to assess. As if I would have been paid based on games won in a U-12 season.

See, in Duncan's world it would not matter that when they got to high school it was "my" kids who led the team to a conference championship. Nor that they stayed in school. Nor that they learned to work with other kids around them. Just as Lehman Brothers brokers walked away with massive bonuses without a thought regarding long-term results, my fellow coaches would have been rewarded, and I punished, based on short term nonsense.

And maybe I would have chosen not to coach "those" kids. Maybe "those" kids would have gotten scattered among other teams and forgotten. Maybe "those" kids would have gotten the least experienced coach every year. Maybe... because that is what is being incentivized if you create merit pay for teachers without completely re-thinking educational assessment.

We can laugh at Arne Duncan. Yes, he is the only person in Obama's cabinet who thinks that bonuses based on short-term results are a desirable "reform." But it is not funny. Merit pay creates all the wrong incentives. It will ensure that the kids who need the most help get the least.

I supported Barack Obama, and continue to. But he never indicated any real sense of what education in America needs, and his choice of a Secretary of Education has proven disastrous. Please email the White House and ask that Arne Duncan be fired. Please. Or we will remake our schools in the image of George W. Bush's Wall Street. And that is something America can not afford.

- Ira Socol


Spritle said...

merit pay: no details yet so the jury is out.


See last paragraph

irasocol said...

See Spritle, I disagree. If he was serious about assessment/evaluation reform, which is the essential pre-requisite for merit pay to even be discussed intelligently, he surely would have brought it up first. Instead we are back with Rod Paige: "merit pay" "high standards" "charter schools" without defining any of those things seriously.

Duncan is either Obama's biggest mistake or proof that the "change" he seeks has no generational commitment behind it.

- Ira Socol

chimchim said...

obama will build consensus with the teachers (probably not the parents cuz they aren't organized) so that's why nothing is set in stone yet. obama is a jedi master, he'll wave his beautiful hand in front of the union's face and make them think it was all their idea whatever the details. but you're probably right that he doesn't get the problem of measuring every child by the same yardstick cuz i've never heard him talk about it.