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Student, Business Engineering, Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium

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What do you think of merit-based pay for teachers?

I don't know if the question is still relevant, I haven't followed it until recently but I heard it was quiet a debate at the Presidential election and wanted to know what he TED community thought of this.
Is merit-based pay for teachers a good idea... There are a lot of pros and cons about the topic: Will it help the education of the students (the main goal of the would-be arrangement)? Will the amount of teachers have a positive boost? Will it make the teachers too competitive, lessening the cooperation between them?

Please write your ideas.

(English is not my first language so excuse the grammatical errors and easy language)


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    Nov 27 2012: answer me a question, dear commenters. if teachers are paid not based on merit, then based on what?
    • Nov 28 2012: I think the better question is: What constitutes 'merit'?
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        Nov 28 2012: that is a good question indeed, after one came to the conclusion that merit is the only way to go.
        • Nov 28 2012: Why? Maybe (actually quite likely, considering people can't even agree on a definition of teacher merit) assessing a teacher's merit is so difficult and error prone that it's more cost-effective to just pay all teachers the same wage. I mean it's basically as unfeasible and inefficient as the state planning your needs for you (communism), so you of all people should understand why it probably won't work.

          @Fritzie below

          Sure, that's not how it works in the US (which isn't the only country in the world: in much of Europe all teachers in the same country with the same longevity get paid the same, there are no "districts"), but that's not the point, the point is that it might be more cost-effective to not factor in some measure of merit.
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          Nov 28 2012: This reply is to John. In the United States teachers are not all paid the same wage. The wage is different in different districts, and two teachers teaching the same content/curriculum will not necessarily receive the same wage. Traditionally those who have taught longer in a district will be paid more than novice teachers, and those with more education either in the subject they teach or in education typically are paid more than those with less education for the same amount of k12 classroom experience. Longevity in the job counts a great deal more, usually, than academic preparation.

          As an example, a high school teacher with a doctorate in physics who has taught secondary school for two years might be paid less than half of what a first grade teacher is paid with twenty years experience.

          Pay is negotiated between the district and the labor union subject to a fixed amount of money allocated by the state for salaries.

          I am not a specialist in school finance, but I believe this is typically how it works.
          Beyond this, it is, perhaps, like the way nurses are paid. Historically they have been expected to do their best for each person in their care, while operating within the rules and with the materials that are authorized for their use. Just as nurses are not paid on the basis of the health of the patient, teachers have not traditionally been paid based on how successful the students are on standardized tests, though that is commonly part of the teacher's evaluation.
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      Nov 28 2012: Based on what the customer is willing to pay, i.e. the free market.
      • Nov 28 2012: That's not gonna work because education is one of those things that are only open to the general public because the rich pay more for it than the poor. If it was a free market the current quality could not be maintained for children of poor parents.
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          Nov 28 2012: Yup that is the common myth.

          You first have to consider that public schools are subsidized by the government by the time the money is skimmed by multiple layers of beauracy a much smaller percentage makes its way to the school.

          There was a video today on how traffic jams can be and are fixed by keeping the decision process of how to route traffic from the bottom up this makes a big difference. Point is that by keeping the decisions at the local level there would be increased efficiencies as the person who knows best how to use the resources are at the local level


          So this money would remain at the local level.

          If you privatize the whole education system the better schools are going to have better teachers. But the higher quality private schools would raise the tide for all schools. By pushing competition into the school system the entire system would improve. The good teachers would make more money and the level of all the education would be raised.
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          Nov 28 2012: and we need to believe that because ... government officials ... say so?
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        Nov 28 2012: "Based on what the customer is willing to pay"

        also known as "merit"
        • Nov 28 2012: Right, that's why a $200 Nike sneaker has 4 times the quality of another brand's $50 sneaker made in the same Chinese factory, also, a $2000 iMac is clearly twice as powerful as a $1000 PC with the same hardware, last but not least those $80.000 designer handbags clearly have 1000 times the quality of an $80 handbag made in the same Chinese factory.

          Everyone knows convenience (location for example), marketing hype and prestige factor into any pricing system just as much as quality, well almost everyone.
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          Nov 28 2012: "Based on what the customer is willing to pay"

          No. That is purely a materialistic measure that has no basis whatsoever in a measure of quality.
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          Nov 28 2012: "that has no basis whatsoever in a measure of quality."

          Only an thoroughly indoctrinated socialist could say that.

          Please view the countries view over time

      • Nov 28 2012: I don't think that I can agree that privatizing the whole education system is a workable solution. I went to a good private school and count myself extremely lucky for the quality of education I received. I'm also a teacher (albeit a very new one).

        The problem I have with the free market approach is that I don't see how it benefits those customers at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Without the means to pay for a first-rate education, one must rely on inferior instruction, or possibly no education at all. Or if we decide that everyone must have an education and offer loans, we increase the amount of debt a student must acquire.

        Even if we look at Charter Schools in the US (private schools working with their own charter within the public school system), the quality of the education is not guaranteed to be better than in a comparable public school. Overall, Charter School students test at a slightly lower rate than public school students (with some exceptions). Of course, Charter Schools are a hybrid model, so I realize it's not really free-market

        Merit based pay is something I'd be in favor of as a teacher. But not only is "merit" problematic, so is the concept of assessment. Our current models of assessment tell us who is good at passing exams in bizarre and artificial circumstances and tell us nothing of what the student actually knows or understands. Come to that, we should probably come up with an agreed upon definition of intelligence.

        To me, the problem is that we don't really know what we're educating people for. Public Education was founded in the US to create a citizenry who were educated enough to take part in democracy. then it was to instill a sense of citizenry, then to create educated workers, later business people, now to create college-ready students (that is, we are educating people to be able to be educated later). It may be time to rethink what education is for before we can discuss the merits of a teacher.
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          Nov 28 2012: The devil is in selecting the metric, as you state it is much harder than it appears.

          Which is why I think the metric that will be the most closely scrutinized is known as the market price or economic equilibrium.

          We have the opposite of this in Calif where the teachers are some of the highest paid in the country and the test scores are some of the lowest in the country. Even if they just taught to the test it would be an improvement. I guess you cannot legislate children into knowledge?
      • Nov 28 2012: That the market value would be more closely scrutinized I agree with. That this would produce better overall results I'm not convinced of. I suspect that it'd produce a small number of highly educated children and a much larger number of very poorly educated children.

        I would also argue that you can legislate children into knowledge, as demonstrated by the fact that a vast majority of the public can now read. How much knowledge and should that knowledge be counted as understanding or subject mastery is up for debate.

        Of course, I have strong biases. I'm not much of a free-market-is-the-answer kind of guy. I tend to believe that some things (health, education, public safety and so on) are more important that the whims of market forces. I DO think that teachers getting rewarded for excellent teaching is a decent idea, and I do feel that while the teaching unions in the US were founded for excellent reasons (to combat things like teachers being fired a week before they retired to stop them claiming their pension), they have become hugely problematic for all concerned. But an all out market force solution doesn't convince me.

        But without a clear idea of what it is we want the schools to actually DO, I think any concept of merit based teaching is doomed.
      • Nov 28 2012: I've seen it, it's a very interesting video.

        I didn't make any arguments because I suspect the majority of the conversation would be ideological. And while that can certainly be informative and interesting, it's not likely to convince anyone to change their minds. For example - a lot of my reservations are based on a concept of "complete free market" as morally suspect, which is a position I realize not everyone agrees with. Some people believe that education is not a human right (it's not in the US constitution for example), and still others believe that you only need to educate the elite of a society (a view I find bizarre, but one that was presented to me in all seriousness during a graduate class.)

        But you're right - there should be an argument to back up this gut feeling. The most cogent argument I could make in the space allowed might be to compare public education to public health. I grew up in the UK, moving to the US at age 31. If I examine the US healthcare system (which is currently about as close to fully privatized as I can imagine without removing the need to provide any healthcare at all to people without money), the statistics simply do not point to a free market leading to better service. The US has a pretty poor track record compared to other Westernized nations, and pays around double what the next country pays. I don't really see why we should expect fully privatized education to go the same way.

        I do however understand that not everyone feels that comparing US healthcare (or indeed education) to other countries works well, because there are a number of unique factors present or absent in the US that make such direct translation necessary.

        Almost every teacher I've ever met is left-leaning politically, which leads me to suspect that most teachers would have problems with full privatization. I don't expect to convince anyone who doesn't agree with me, so the best I can offer is the promise to treat the free-market view with respect.
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          Nov 28 2012: Healthcare in the U.S. is not really private. Medicare is a big factor on health care as it infuses the industry with cash. It is really a form of crony capitalism. As it has with housing and college education.

          Additionally it is set up so the customer is not aware of prices and do not care what they are.

          Is it any wonder that the students graduate with a liberal bent?

          Here is a fun fact for the first 150 years the government did not interfere in economic matters at all. Thinking swiftly and using the scientific matter how about we go back to what worked before?

          Before you say how terrible it was without the government realize that the U.S. has raised the standard of living of the world more than any other country in history and government had nothing to do with it quite the opposite. The history of the world is chalk full of exploiting people through the monopoly of government. The U.S. is the anomaly that has brought people up a notch by limiting government.
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        Nov 28 2012: A little off subject here, but I noticed an article online today summarizing the Wall street Journal's ratings of how well or poorly run particular states are. California, as you might have guessed, came in 50th of 50 states.
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          Nov 28 2012: Fritzie

          Please don't go off on a tangent while I'm trying to conduct a class. (8^(l)

          I'm surprised they rated Calif that high?
      • Nov 28 2012: Which is what I meant when I said this was going to be a largely ideological conversation, with little to no chance of changing anyone's mind.

        I absolutely agree that Healthcare in the US is not really private. But it's about as privatized as I can imagine without removing the need to ensure everyone has access to at least basic emergency needs. But yes, it's a hybrid model that doesn't fit either of our models well.

        It is, however, the most privatized system I can think of in that there is no equivalent of the National Health Service. (I'd point out that the UK also has private health insurance companies - though I'm bringing it up mostly because most people seem to see privatization as an either/or solution.) Public healthcare - to continue the tangent - is not a case of government monopoly exploiting the people. It is providing the services for those who cannot afford them.

        And so it is with education - I wish public schools could offer the same quality of education as the very best private schools, but at least private schools' existence allows those with the means to educate their offspring while freeing up resources for those who cannot.

        If we want to use the scientific method and return to the time when the government did not interfere with economic matters, first we'd need tome hard data that showed that as the unequivocal reason why life got so much better afterwards. That's a tall order. We would also have to explain why Canada currently has a higher standard of living than the US (well, last I checked - admittedly i'm citing a statistic that's almost a decade old)..

        We appear to be using very different models of thinking when we examine the world around us. I highly doubt that I'll convince you of the overall benefits of nationalization of public services any more than I don't expect you to be able to convince me of the benign power of the invisible hand. And now I am out of space.
      • Nov 28 2012: Because "obvious" doesn't mean the same thing as "true". One of the prime reasons we use the scientific method is to separate what we know to be true from what seems obvious to us.

        So when we see a correlation between smaller government interference in the economic decisions of a country and anything else, we cannot simply state that it must be true that one caused the other without data to demonstrate WHY it did. To do otherwise is to commit the fallacy of causal correlation.

        I do thank you for the updated statistic - I'll look into it deeper when I have more time. Either way, until we can agree on the causal connection between "small government" and "better education", it's not really going to convince me.
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          Nov 28 2012: Yup but the correlation is an excellent place to start doing something we of the enlightened persuasion like to think of as Looking. And of course you cannot assume that a correlation is not the cause either.

          I think the best way to divine the truth out of these debates is something we of the enlightened persuasion like to call: do it work or don't it. So even without the benefit of an academics infinite ability to filter we can use what works. E.G. The case of Samual Pierpoint Langley verses the Wright brothers.
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        Nov 28 2012: Sixteen years ago, I was on the negotiating team for an urban school district. We were out to show the advantage to students if the teacher's union were to accept two things we really wanted.

        Our top priority was building based hiring in which the principal with the advice of a building team could hire the best teachers he/she could get for openings in the building. This was to replace the former system (which may still be commonplace in this country) in which openings were filled, rather, by letting teachers choose jobs on the basis of seniority. In the old system, the building had to take the most senior person who wanted the job!

        When we got our unions to accept this, it was considered a breakthrough contract for a district to achieve with a union. Buildingbased hiring replaced the seniority system.

        The second thing we wanted was a merit pay plan. We put forward a metric in which a portion of teacher pay would be connected to the students' growth during the year. The key feature, though, was that we would look at merit in terms of the growth one would expect based on data for comparable students to those the teacher was teaching rather than students in the district at large. Some groups of students are much more challenging to teach than others, and the expected growth would be different.

        Our idea was to compare across the district how much growth a teacher achieved relative to classes in the district with similar students and to reward the top x%. I cannot remember whether it was 10% or what.

        We didn't get this for a couple of reasons I remember. One was that the union leaders felt they could not be sure that whatever metric we agreed to wouldn't be manipulated later so as not take into account the differential challenges in teaching different groups of students. The other issue was that teachers felt they were constrained from doing their best by district curriculum and instructional mandates.
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          Nov 28 2012: Ok Fritzie consider yourself asked.

          This metric stuff is very tricky, I have beat over the head with stuff more than I care to admit, fortunately I have developed calluses.

          I love the building based hiring idea.

          The metric idea sound workable but in my experience people always figure out a way to game the system. But anything is better than the union and it's rules.

          3 points on this subject.

          Individuals flourish in small groups as with your building team.

          Bottom up trumps top down always, but that does not mean you don't need a top it just has to stay the hell out of the way of the bottom. There is a management philosophy called Lean manufacturing which stems from Toyota that has been successful in implementing bottom up in government and the unions. It is so successful that it is dare I say exciting.

          The only metric system I have seen work is 2 individual voluntarily exchanging with each other. Not to mention that exchange is the genesis of innovation.
      • Nov 28 2012: Well, we've gone from a debate to thinly veiled insults, so I'm not sure what use this conversation actually has at this point. When you start referring to yourself as "we of the enlightened persuasion", all I can do is reply as "we of the rational persuasion". That we don't agree doesn't make either of us stupid or ill educated.

        Unless you can demonstrate WHY something works and HOW something works, "do it work or don't it" is indistinguishable from magical thinking. Yes, correlation does not rule out causation. I never argued that it did. I argued that if you want to make a point like that, correlation isn't enough. Until we agree that life WAS better FOR those reasons, it's not a solution we agree on. It's what we of the rational persuasion call "thinking".

        Anyway, this is getting out of hand fast. The truth is, I do respect your point of view. I don't find it persuasive, but I admit that the reasons I don't find myself persuaded aren't reasons you share. It is, however, not universally recognized that complete privatization of education (or any social system) is to anyone's net benefit. That's not to say that that point of view is false. It's that it's not going to convince everyone, certainly not in the way you're presenting it.

        And with that, I need to bow out. Long evening ahead of me.
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          Nov 28 2012: The sarcasm was in reference to me submitting that today's standard of living was brought to you by the free market. Yet you won't accept that, do you see that that might be met with a certain amount of incredulity?

          Have a nice day.
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        Nov 28 2012: The problem I see with fully privatised education is that there will be a small percentage of the population that can't afford to pay enough to keep a school functioning. The bottom 5% cant afford the cheapest available school but aren't a big enough population to support a cheaper school. It may be an Australian thing due to population density. For example we have government subsidies to encourage doctors to set up practice in rural areas as there are many small town that aren't big enough to support a doctor on their own but the nearest town that is big enough is 200 miles away. If you're a farmer in some parts of AUS your nearest neighbour is 100 miles away.
    • Nov 28 2012: Check out Drive by Daniel Pink and Sway by... some 2 brothers (cant remember their names at the moment sry!). Anyway, both books discuss this exact concept. The issue is that your brain reacts differently to tasks when its rewarded monetarily than.. say.. because its something your driven to do.. and do well. MeritMonetary based reward systems bring out short-term motives in people. Im not saying theres no room for merit based systems.. but there are several sociological pitfalls that can occur unless planned for.
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        Nov 28 2012: you did not answer my question. but okay, lets reply to that.

        recommending a book is a win. either the opponent will reject reading it for being too taxing, in this case you can claim victory. or he starts reading, then probably follow up on the references, research opposing arguments, etc, which takes from weeks to years. in this case the opponent disappears, so you win.

        instead, you might present the findings here.

        i know many "experiments" in which experimenters tried to test whether monetary gain is a good motivator. the very idea of testing seems strange in the light of the fact that we tested it for centuries and the results are marvelous. compare the life of anyone today to anyone 200 years back, and see the difference for yourself. so i see completely relevant how many evidence is stacked up on the other side, as long as it is less then a million. not to mention basic logic and introspection. everyone considers the payment when taking a new job. everyone moves to areas with higher average salary. people give the reason of higher salaries when choosing universities, etc. so come on!

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