Friday, April 1, 2011

Kershaw's superintendent: Merit pay isn't a simple answer

Superintendent Frank Morgan of Kershaw County has spent nearly four decades in education, and he says he's seen the flavors-of-the-month come and go. Speaking of pay-for-test-scores, he cautions against jumping headfirst into this month's flavor.

On the surface, merit pay makes a great deal of sense. The idea of rewarding teachers for performance seems intuitively fairer and more productive than the traditional way of compensating teachers, which is based on experience, degrees and certifications such as National Board. Unfortunately, the track record hasn’t lived up to the hype. The overwhelming majority of plans that have been implemented over the past 30 years have ultimately been abandoned.

As recently as September, a study by Vanderbilt University concluded that merit-based bonuses did not raise student achievement, as measured by standardized tests. (We could have a long discussion as to whether standardized tests are an accurate measure of achievement, but we’ll save that one for another time.) The study looked at fifth- through eighth-grade math teachers in the Nashville public schools from 2007 through 2009. Teachers could receive between $5,000 and $15,000 per year, based on how their students performed on standardized tests. The money; however, didn’t result in a significant difference in academic growth.

Studies are like statistics: People can produce both to support their case. When I hear about a study produced by a university, I like to ask who paid for it. Example: The University of Arkansas loves churning out studies that prove vouchers and tuition tax credits work. But knowing that the Walton family foundation contributes a lot of money to the University of Arkansas, and that the Waltons are staunch supporters of vouchers, tempers my enthusiasm for that university's reports. In this case, a study from Vanderbilt University says pay-for-test-scores isn't effective. I don't know who paid for the study, but I also don't know of any bias on the part of Vanderbilt.

Morgan continues with some points to ponder, if indeed South Carolina's lawmakers and State Superintendent Mick Zais are hell-bent on implementing pay-for-test-scores. You can read the whole column for yourself, but he identifies three causes for concern.

First, he writes, "If done right, merit pay will actually cost more in the long run." Colorado's plan is one example. Millions more were spent than were projected to be spent, but there were human-resource and effectiveness costs too, as "collegiality and cooperation that are hallmarks of any good school" are damaged by such schemes.

"Would teachers continue to freely share ideas and strategies if they were pitted against each other for the same dollars?" he asks. "I’m not sure that a school where this does not occur is the kind of school parents want. Teaching children is different than making widgets."

Second, Morgan proposes considering more than just standardized test scores. For one reason, "the performance of many teachers — those in the arts, teachers of severely disabled students or media specialists, for example — isn’t measured by these tests." I wonder if state lawmakers realized that.

And third, Morgan writes,

Pay is not the single motivating factor for teachers. Certainly, fair pay is important, but so are professional development opportunities, reasonable class sizes, good facilities and access to technology and supportive leadership. If a merit pay plan is being viewed as a single solution to improve teacher motivation and quality and improve student achievement, it will fall as short of the mark as other plans before it have. There are multiple areas other than pay that must also receive attention and support.

Morgan is surely a reasonable fellow, and I feel better knowing of his long history in K-12 education. He, too, seems to invest some esteem in the wisdom of those serving in the classroom. He writes, "I’m not sure that someone who has not taught in a K-12 classroom fully understands this. A process that is not thorough and thoughtful and diverse in terms of those involved will not result in a product that will move us forward."

I'll have to check my notes but I don't think Governor Nikki Haley or Superintendent Mick Zais have ever been responsible for teaching in a public school classroom. For even a day.

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