US President Barack Obama is talking about merit pay for teachers, which has driven the topic to the top of the news agenda.

It’s a topic AIMS has covered in a number of research papers, including Getting the Fox out of the Schoolhouse: How the public can take back public education.

To provide background information and indepth analysis, the news media turned to AIMS Executive Vice President Charles Cirtwill for answers. In a series of broadcast interviews with radio stations across the country, Cirtwill explained why the topic is back on the education public policy agenda. The following is a compilation of Cirtwill’s radio interviews.

Why is Obama interested in merit pay?

Success – as the US experimentation with merit pay for teachers expands, the evidence of success is growing. Expansion and union buy-in in Minnesota, mixed results in Florida and Texas, evidence of success in NY and Chicago. Chicago being where both Obama and Arne Duncan, his education secretary come from.

Success is variously defined – increased graduation rates, improved test scores, improved student/staff/parent satisfaction, increased applications for “tough” teaching positions in challenged inner-city schools.

Will merit pay come north?

Depends on the outcome of the age old question – what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object – in this case the massive inertia of the top heavy, rules bound monopoly that is public education and the previously unseen arrogance, self-absorbtion and self-confidence of the “me” generation.

The union leadership from the late seventies and early eighties will tell you that the reforms in Edmonton Public Schools happened because individual teachers wanted control of their classrooms. Edmonton has become a beacon of success and reform across NA and indeed around the world – yet, here in Canada, the education establishment has successfully hived it off, treating it as a contagion that needed to be excised and quarantined. Much the same thing could happen with any successes that occur with merit pay.

But this time the “wildfire” of teachers seeking independence and recognition of their skills will likely be wider spread.

What are the key problems with merit pay?

Breaking the monopoly and then deciding what exactly is meritorious.

Breaking the monopoly will not be easy (particularly in AC – where testing, evidence based decision making and open public reporting has been the last to arrive and where choice still does not exist). Even in Ontario and the West, progress has been slow, hard won and constantly under assault by organized interests. Reporting in MB is non existent, choice in Ontario is limited, testing in BC is under pressure.

As for defining merit – we do it now – years of service, education, training – all of these go into teacher classification.

Merit generally means more than that – it means impact on students – the challenge is to measure that:

  • standardized tests
  • surveys
  • teaching at tough schools
  • teaching “needed” subjects
  • peer review
  • “walking classrooms” – techniques not just used but applied

How can merit pay be successful?

Merit pay works best where “success” and in particular “student success” is defined in the broadest possible way, but in any case two things are key:

  1. Must be evidence based – must be objectively measurable or, if subjective, then at least open and transparent and clear.
  2. Also MUST control for context – the skills of the kids, the nature of the school, nature of the community.

Our institute does this with our annual high school report cards – the first in Canada to do “value added assessment” on a systemic basis. It makes for a sounder, richer and more reliable assessment of results. Not just tests, but not without the tests either – a good, Canadian compromise – a little of everything that is important.

So does it work?

Edward Lawler, one of the most respected and prolific academic experts in human resources of the past 30 years, describes the conditions that permit the effective use of money as a motivator:

  • employees attach a high value to pay,
  • employees believe good performance will result in higher pay,
  • employees have enough control over the job that their own efforts can have a material impact, and
  • superior performance leads to more positive than negative results (e.g. more acceptance than rejection by coworkers). 

Notice how much these factors depend on the “eye of the beholder.” Employee attitudes have a lot to do with the success of merit pay programs. Perhaps comments I’ve gleaned from employee surveys can shed some light.

Do you support merit pay?

Evidence is still mixed on merit pay, and there are MANY other reforms where the return is greater or more conclusively demonstrated:

  • open reporting
  • competition for students
  • school level control

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for example, in “countries with both above average student performance in science and below-average impact of socio-economic background on student performance, 80% of 15-year-olds are in schools which reported competing with one or more schools in the area for students.”

But choice, of course, is not enough. Again, according to the OECD, “Another feature that the best performers in PISA share is that they have devolved responsibility to the frontline. PISA suggests that countries giving more responsibility to schools tend to perform better. Giving schools more autonomy in formulating the budget, and letting them decide on allocations within the school tends to go hand in hand with better performance. This remains true even after accounting for socio-economic background and other school and system level factors.”

The OECD also tells us that “PISA shows that schools posting results publicly tend to perform better (even after accounting for all other school and socio-economic factors). This effect is strong across many countries. This suggests that external monitoring of standards, rather than relying mostly on schools and teachers to uphold them, can make a real difference to results.”