February 11, 2010

Why the Teacher Incentive Fund and Race to the Top are long-term dead ends for merit-pay advocates

The apparent push in the proposed 2011 Obama budget for an enlarged Teacher Incentive Fund on the heels of Race to the Top makes me think that merit-pay/performance-pay advocates may be spreading their political capital very thin on teacher evaluation. Most advocates of paying teachers in part based on test scores are also advocates of using test scores in part to evaluate teachers more broadly, especially dividing probationary teachers from teachers with a right to due process before dismissal. And they're trying to do both. Smart or stupid? I think it's counterproductive for several reasons:

  1. The research on benefits of individual-teacher performance pay is limited. Very limited and quite mixed. Putting all your chips on a huge expansion of experimental performance-pay schemes? You may not get what you want, and public evaluations may doom the politics. (Think Reading First, though the allegations of corruption set the stage in that case for death-by-evaluation.)
  2. Grant programs end. If the expansion of performance-pay programs relies on temporary revenue, then the program may well die along with the extra revenue. Denver's teachers union and district worked together on a long-term political deal: performance pay that teachers helped develop tied to a long-term boost in revenue. That's not the structure of RTTT, TIF, or the Gates Foundation grants.
  3. Real-life performance-pay bonus budgets are stingy. The best example of that reality is here in Florida, where the state budget for the school-based rewards for test scores has been no greater than $100/student (for a school) since the late 1990s, and while my undergraduate students sometimes enter my classes thinking that a huge amount of school budgets are based on test scores, in reality that's no more than about 1.5-2% of per-pupil expenditures in Florida (and that's for the schools that receive the money). When this money is distributed to staff (sometime it is, sometimes it isn't), it's in the form of bonuses, not additions to base salaries. The fiscal and political reality is that the only way to permanently boost base salaries substantially based on test scores is to give the money to a tiny fraction of teachers, and that's a recipe for political disaster (and legal problems).

The last point is one I am surprised opponents of performance pay have not raised sufficiently, and here's how I thought someone would have put it by now: Okay, so you want to pay teachers well if their students learn a great deal? Wonderful. So if students perform at a very high level, you're willing to raise taxes to reward teachers for that accomplishment? Liberal advocates of performance pay would probably answer yes if. I don't think fiscal conservatives who are performance-pay advocates have thought through the dilemma on that point very clearly; either the answer is that you're willing to raise taxes or that you have low expectations for schoolchildren. 

Eventually, I suspect that advocates of performance pay will have to decide whether they want to put all of their political capital into pay schemes that are fragile or into hiring and retention issues. The proposed ballooning of TIF is a sign that no one in Washington is thinking about the political balance of these issues in the long run. 

Disclosure: I'm a member of a higher ed union that has long had a contract with merit pay and considerable differences in pay by rank and discipline. K-12 is a very different world in this regard. 

Note: I started this entry on Tuesday, and because I forgot to change the "publish date" (which Movable Type usually sets at the time you started an entry, not published it), it first appeared as if it were published Tuesday. My editing fault, not your faulty memory. Now, your forgetting to read all of my books and articles? That's a different story.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on February 11, 2010 7:48 AM |