June 18, 2007

The right context on merit pay?

Sam Dillon's Times story on merit pay has one inherent hypothesis, framing the growth of merit pay as the erosion of union opposition to performance pay. I suppose you could look at it that way, but I don't think that's accurate. For many years, my own faculty union (the United Faculty of Florida) was both an affiliate of the NEA (supposedly anti-merit pay according to Dillon) and also a supporter of merit pay in our own contracts. For some odd reason, we weren't thrown out of the NEA, maybe having something to do with locals' authority to negotiate contracts that are appropriate in local circumstances.

I'll propose two counter-hypotheses:

1. Teacher unions have fought consistently against arbitrary pay schemes. Since the modern rise of teacher unions in the 1960s, locals and state/national affiliates have consistently devoted resources to fighting the worst pay plan currently proposed. Collective bargaining and lobbying are both pragmatic activities, where you work for the best outcome available at the moment. If merit pay including principals' judgment is better that merit pay based entirely on test scores, then it's entirely sensible that a local would agree to the first to fight off the second. If this hypothesis about tactical tradeoffs is true, one reason for the relaxation in vigilance about supervisory authority is the change in principal ranks over the last 4 decades, with more women as administrators and with the stability of collective-bargaining relationships taking some of the adversarial relationships out of unionized systems. But I suspect it's at least partly a case of tactical decisionmaking about the lesser of two evils.

2. Teacher unions fight consistently to put money in the pockets of teachers. In many of the more celebrated cases of merit pay (such as Denver's ProComp), merit pay was linked to a substantial pot of money for teacher pay. In the case of Denver, the school system and the local must have made the common judgment that the only way to get political approval for substantial teacher pay hikes would be to have some form of merit pay. The union then worked on the pilot to make sure that it would be reasonable comfortable with the system before they had to commit to it with the referendum.

One last point: there is far too little research on such performance-pay plans, often cast largely as pro or con ("it works!") instead of looking at what happens when pay is based on various factors. I'll repeat this as long as necessary: when I know and cite more of the relevant I-O psychology research than those who are supposedly experts on performance pay for teachers, the expertise isn't including everything that's important. (See chapter 5 of Accountability Frankenstein for more.)

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Posted in Education policy on June 18, 2007 10:07 AM |