Fraser Report re basing “teacher pay” on student outcomes not realistic!

While it may not be a popular notion for me to suggest elementary and secondary teachers should NOT be paid merit pay on the basis of student success, I am going to do so anyway because the subject comes up every couple of years.

Today was no exception. Ken Moore, who operates a blog called Metanoodle, seems to think establishing teacher excellence would be a relatively easy process. As he wrote in a post this morning: “Why aren’t tests of student learning the track to better pay? There are good teachers everywhere but what evidence that college and promotion produced them?”

Well, for one thing, in terms of evidence, teacher graduates receive their licencing certification from their professional college just as is the case with other professional bodies.

In other words, they passed the requirements leading to that certification which, contrary to the opinion of some, can be quite rigorous (e.g., in some cases, a four year university degree that included a final year studying all aspects of teaching and learning and 8 – 12 weeks of practice under the supervision of a practicing teacher.)

Apparently Moore’s comments were related to the latest Fraser Review of the Literature Report — which “recommends new policies that will potentially enhance the impact that teachers and school administrators have on the academic achievement of public school students.”

Now let’s look at that final statement again — the impact teachers and administrators have on student achievement. No where does it question what the impact student ability and attitude might have on their academic achievement. Teaching is an act between two human beings. Each has a duty to the end result. I mean, teachers cannot simply open a child’s head and pour in knowledge and skills.

Yes,  I know I will be accused of being part of the “education-blob”  and therefore biased because I am both a former teacher and teacher educator. Yet, I have also done research on teacher behaviour and student success when I was in private practice operating a reading and learning disabilities clinic. My results suggested that a variety of methods of student evaluation should be used.

So, the very idea that the Fraser Institute’s review of the literature indicates that (according to the Globe and Mail’s analysis) school principals should be able to fire teachers based on student outcomes in order to establish winning teams, is absolutely abhorrent.

What an absolutely cut throat idea for everyone. Schools would become a very nasty place to be that is for sure because an individual principal would have too much power over everyone. And, I have taught in schools where that kind of scenario existed and it was not pleasant.

I mean, we are dealing with human beings here and not processes or products. Is success an extra 2% on standardized test results in reading, having 2 completed science projects or having done better in everyday work than last year?

Will such variables be considered such as a child having after-school tutoring or an older sibling who helped them with their school projects?

Given what I have written lately about Jake Barnett (here and here), readers may wonder how I can be against the system in some ways but not in terms of merit pay.

Well, to my mind, they are completely separate issues. We cannot expect teachers to teach to the needs and talents of each student, while at the same time, to a specific generalized “standardized” test result.

In fact, in my opinion, the two notions are incompatible. Rather, what should happen is that each child’s outcomes be based on a comparison of what they did last semester or last year compared to the present.

Merit pay, on the other hand, or value added compensation as the Fraser Report refers to it, based on standardized test results or GPA scores will have teacher’s teaching to the test and not to the needs of each student.

Plus, there is the issue of compensation equality. While I may be critical of teachers’ unions from time to time, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that when it comes to the establishment of a gender neutral pay scale, they got it right. Opening up that criteria by adding in merit pay based on a principal’s interpretation of student outcomes could adversely affect the gains women in education have made.

In my opinion, then, the crux of the matter is that no matter how many times think tanks like the Fraser Institute recommend teachers be paid based on student success, it is simply not a realistic possibility for some of the reasons I have given.



Cross-posted at Jack’s Newswatch.

BC Liberal leadership hopeful promises teacher merit pay

The Globe and Mail’s Justine Hunter has written a column today about “right leaning” BC Liberal leadership hopeful, Kevin Falcon’s promise that, if elected BC Liberal leader, he would institute merit pay for teachers.  In principle, I agree with such an idea.  But Falcon needs to clearly explain how teaching excellence would be defined, who would be doing the defining and what type of “merit” model would be used.

Teaching Excellence

For example, Hunter quotes Annie Kidder of Ontario’s People for Education, as saying: “I have a problem with the underlying idea of the notion that if you pay teachers more, you do better work.” Well, I can see Kidder’s point of view. A job is a job. Everyone should do their best and get equal pay for doing it. Right? 

Then, how come so many taxpayers are complaining about a decline in provincial academic standards — a view that is completely consistent with recent OECD international test results. Those results indicated, for instance, that Canada had dropped from 7th place in reading skills in 2006 to 10th in 2009? Oh yes, I know that some provincial premiers tried to spin that decrease as good news (e.g, Ontario’s McGuinty), but it was not. Check out this discussion at EduChatter to read what I mean.   

The Teachers’ Union “Learning Conditions”

Then, there is the teachers’ union point of view which is predictable and about as anti-reform as you can get. Susan Lambert, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation apparently said: “It’s [merit pay] a destructive idea that doesn’t bode well for public education….The way you foster excellence in teaching is providing sufficient resources to the system so there are tenable learning conditions.”

Ah yes, merit pay is a destructive idea. Rather, simply spend more money to improve “learning conditions” and you will get excellence. Bah humbug! Didn’t we hear that refrain during the 1997 Ontario teachers’ strike — teaching conditions are learning conditions!

So, just what are learning conditions anyway? More desks? Larger classrooms? More listening and reading centre supplies? No, the conditions Ms. Lambert — and all other provincial teachers’ unions talk about — is code for more money for higher teachers salaries.

Now, given how high teachers’ salaries already are, we are never really told just how spending more will improve student outcomes. Well, they obviously can’t. Such a notion is just plain union spin and self-serving twaddle.   

What teaching excellence looks like

Now, here is where the rubber hits the road. All practising and retired teachers know that some teachers work harder than others. It’s simply human nature and would be the same in any profession. But, that is the problem with unions. They want to treat everyone equally in order to be fair but in actual fact it is not fair because, if they don’t acknowledge those who slack off, they also don’t acknowledge those who go the extra mile. As a result, what we end up with is mediocrity throughout the entire system.

Excellence in the real world

The problem is that mediocrity is not how the real world operates. Years ago, before he went on to graduate work, my brother was employed as a radio announcer for a private BC radio station. I still remember him telling me that there was a sign on the wall, directly in front of his mic,  that read: “Be good or be gone.” That’s what the private sector expects and that is what the education system should expect as well. Figure out what is excellence and then reward everyone, from students to teachers, for doing outstanding work.

Potential problems with merit pay policies

All that said, there are major problems with the notion of merit pay that need to be dealt with. For example:

  • Would it be based on student evaluations or student marks? If so, you could be looking at a popularity contest —  not excellence — unless the teacher stayed after school to help struggling students improve their grades. Because, without that one-on-one attention, few students would give a teacher a high evaluation for low marks or hard work?  
  • Would it be based on parent comments? Well, if a parent didn’t like the teacher or felt the teacher’s standards were too high, that could be a major problem. And, while parents certainly understand their children better than anyone else, they don’t know how they behave in class — such as whether or not they pay attention and/or finish assignments.
  • Would it be based only on the say-so of a principal or area superintendent? And, therein lies some huge potential problems related to internal politics and teaching philosophy. For instance, one principal might rate desks in rows and quiet children as an example of excellent while another may rate the opposite approach as excellent. In other words, teacher evaluation is not uniform, no matter how much non-teachers think it is. Should that be used as an excuse? Definitely not. Just that there are philosophical differences requiring a give and take whenever a teacher is evaluated.
  • A points model for providing merit pay that would be fair  

    However, there is a fair way that school boards and school districts could provide teacher merit pay — what I will call a “points system.” For example, when I taught at the post-secondary level a minimum full-time teaching load was between 120 and 140 points.

    Note, however, that is only one third of an academic’s job. There is also one third for community service and one third for research and scholarly writing.  However, let’s use the 120-140 points as the case in point.

    There were 20 points to teach half courses and 40 points to teach full courses. There were also points for student supervision (for thesis or independent course projects) — 3 points for projects and 6 points when it involved a thesis committee and final defence.  Therefore, an instructor could teach three full-credit courses and meet the minimum 120 points. Or, they could teach one full credit, three half credits and supervise several students doing independent work.

    As might be expected, some professors worked for the 120 points because there were those twenty points that was unpaid overtime. In other words, if your points added up to 135 or 140, you got the same pay as when you worked for 120 hours. However,  if your work load went that 140 hours (even by only a few points), the reward was significant.

    For example, I knew many academics who regularly worked between 150-160 points a semester because students wanted them to supervise their independent work — meaning they might work with upwards of ten or even twenty students. But, it was completely fair because it was the professors who made a conscious choice — to do the extra work.  

    Now, doing extra work or supervision doesn’t tell us anything about how well someone teaches, but the reality is that university students do not seek out professors who are doing a lousy job.  

    So, if politicians and education officials at the elementary or secondary levels wanted to suggest a similar fair and objective point system, it could work. How?

    • Teachers willing to coach? 3-6 points. 
    • Willing to supervise lunch hour chess or art clubs? 3-6 points.
    • Arrive at school a half hour earlier than everyone else — and be seen actually working in their classroom as opposed to drinking coffee in the staff room — extra points.
    • Willing to take a class trip?
    • Visit a museum? More points.

    So, just as with the university professors, how can a school board be sure the teachers who do all those extra activities are excellent and worthy of merit pay? Easy!  Because, it will be the excellent teachers who volunteer to do extra work — even if they are not doing so now.

    Something to think about.