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Pay teachers like the rest of are? We already do

Submitted by on Wednesday, 20 May 2009 No Comment

Think we could solve all our problems in education by going to a merit-pay system that would make teachers earn their checks just like the rest of us?

Turns out that teachers already do earn their checks just like the rest of us.

That’s according to new research from the Economic Policy nstitute, which shows that relatively few private-sector workers’ checks are tied directly to performance-based formulas.

The study estimates that overall only about one in seven American workers receive “performance pay” – bonuses, commissions or piece rates – and that it makes up a small percentage of their income.

Though “pay for performance” has remained flat over the past decade, the percentage of bonuses in that mix has increased slightly, the research shows. Or, in the case of AIG, paying bonuses for performance that runs the company into the ground.

That trend’s not unusual, either – OK, so maybe issuing big honking checks for pushing a firm toward insolvency is, but overall there’s often no tie between bonuses and actual performance, Economic Policy Institute says. Contrast that to most merit pay proposals for teachers that stress ties to performance – as if test score changes from year to year constitute “performance.”

So why are merit-pay proposals so appealing that both presidential candidates were in favor of them during last fall’s campaign?

Because they’re based on a simple concept: Weed out the bad teachers by eliminating tenure, pay the good ones more and we’ll fix education.

Simple, yet flawed. Part of the problem comes in determining how to measure a “good” teacher. It’s not as simple as calculating piece pay, where you reward a factory worker with X amount of dollars for every Y amount of widgets.

Test scores measure who’s good at teaching the test, and even that isn’t a perfect system because there are going to be natural fluctuations from year to year in each class’s native intelligence.

Base merit pay on evaluations? Some teachers’ unions are skeptical about the evaluations they’re seeing, even when those results are glowing. Joshua Pechthalt, a United Teachers Los Angeles vice president, told The Los Angeles Times recently that the process is “fraught with problems” including overly sunny assessments that don’t give teachers the help they need to improve.

“I don’t know any workplace where 98 percent of the people are doing a good job,” Pechthalt said.

Merit pay based on volunteering to teach in low-performing schools or in subjects such as math where more teachers are needed? That actually sounds like a good idea. Note, though, that it has nothing to do with merit.

More than likely, the federal government will create some sort of stepped-up merit pay program this year. President Barack Obama has proposed $517 million in “performance pay grants” in next year’s budget, up from $97 million this year, according to The Washington Post.

That’s too bad. That $517 million could be much better spent on preschool programs that states have had to cut due to the recession. If you truly want to pay for performance, investing in preschool will do it.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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