Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Merit Pay Joyride

I have been teaching for more than 25 years. I have taught students from at least 30 different countries (and every continent save Antarctica), every socio-economic level (and some from levels so high that Mike Bloomberg would get a stiff neck looking up at) and nearly 40 different religious backgrounds. Their abilities have ranged from the dyslexic boy lucky to finish consumer math to the kid who got 5s on every AP test he took and is now working on his PhD. in mathematics.

I spend all year teaching and assessing.
  • Grades are based on agreed upon points.
  • Tests are meticulously broken down to assure myself and the students that partial credits are done fairly, that everything they do that is correct and given an appropriate number of points.
  • Progress reports ensure that every student can keep track of his own work and make up missing assignments, and know fairly accurately what his grade is and how he’s doing. If anything is amiss, the kids are instructed to bring it to my attention first. “I not infallible. Let's get it right” Students know that finding my error gets them points.
  • Every mark or measurement has a paper trail and a justification.

That's how grades work. Everyone understands that they are not given but earned.  They know what they got and why and agree that its fair because they'd give themselves the same thing. Though maybe not happy, they'll still says things like "I'm not very good at math but I sure learned a lot." "I enjoy your class, but I hate math." (Then later, the same kid says "My college statistics course was an easy A.") Depending on the course, there are scores of grades of varying weight.

Consider Merit Pay, on the other hand, and its basis.
  • At the end of the year, students are given a survey on the last, hottest day of school when absolutely NONE of them want to be there.
  • In a few minutes, they rush through questions that ask them to judge on a scale of 1 to 10, my use of classroom time, and 12 other vague metrics. (using their vast experience with 10th grade math teaching methods and pedagogy)
  • Add in the results from the 11th grade NECAP test which this grade hasn’t taken yet and doesn't have any incentive to do well on.  Mix in the 8th grade exam from two years ago - somehow this is my responsibility?
  • Add an administrative evaluation from three years ago (because we're doing the fad of the moment: peer coaching)
What you got? Nothing. Nada. Bupkus. Zero. Zilch.
You don't have a clue as to my value as a teacher.

You want to base my merit pay on that?


  1. I agree with you. It would be equivalent to rating doctors based on how well patients do. Some of the physicians who see the sickest patients are the best at their trade ... but the outcome still primarily depends on variables beyond their control.

    One thing I have noticed about they way students rate teachers, though. They do seem to do a decent of it. I remember an informal poll done of students in my high school graduating class. The teachers who were rated as "best" were not the ones who gave out easy A's or allowed students to goof off. I was surprised at that.

    My daughter (and other students I have known) have also said that is useful and accurate. I think on some level kids do recognize what makes a good instructor.

  2. On the other hand, I can push hard throughout the year and get an honest assessment out of the honest students but not out of the jerks or the snowflakes. I can "go easy" and the past is forgotten. Alternately, knowing the questions, I can prepare weeks ahead of time and manipulate the students in ways that will change their answers on that assessment.

    It's the same in any survey: you can affect the outcome by "interpreting" the questions for them, by giving out food or candy, and other stunts.

    Second, if a kid reads "scale of 1 to 10", what does that mean? Is 8 good or really good? How does administration interpret a vague guesstimate from a question that not all kids really understood in a survey that isn't particularly well implemented?

    Additionally, I get a lot from ex-students who come back and report how well they felt they were prepared even though they didn't realize it at the time, grateful that I had been honest when Guidance hadn't, or how they now understood and agreed with the assessments and grades they had earned. How would these opinions have been accounted for?

    Now, take a principal who isn't particularly objective or who may not personally like someone - I have seen one claim that an "7" average for this teacher is better than an "8.4" average for that one because that one is in a different discipline.

    This is not a good basis for awarding several thousand dollars in merit pay.

    In my opinion, ratemyprofessors is a joke. There is no security or honesty about the site at all. Teachers can log on and jack up their ratings easily, kids can get on and trash those they don't like - many times for things that didn't even happen in class. 8 or 9 years ago, I had a principal who looked at those ratings and wanted to include them in our folders, so I made sure that my ratings were good - I asked certain students to visit and rank me. It's easy to "mold the argument" by getting some good evaluations - if they're not too eggregiously false, all of the next ones will mirror them.

    Afte that principal was dumped, all of the teachers got on and started ranking each other - really hamming it up and being ridiculous so the next principal realized that it wasn't the most accurate thing and we went back to regular evaluations.

  3. Your points are well taken. I wonder how many professors actually do stoop to messing with their ratings, though. Do the universities actually look at that site? Overall, at least according to a few of the students I have known, they have found the assessments to be useful in deciding whether to take classes taught by a particular professor. A lot of the time there isn't a choice in the matter, but if a student is aware of some aspects of the teacher's style he can prepare better in advance.

    That said, I don't think it should be used at all for such determinations as pay raises or promotions.