Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Merit Pay and Institutional Effectiveness

One aspect of the debate about educational institutions that I find a little strange is the debate about merit pay.

Critics of public schools complain about results - sometimes in ways that are probably a bit unfair - and one natural area to look for solutions is at the types of accountability and performance incentives teachers and administrators face.  Now, in most organizations, this is an obvious part of the work environment.  There is usually an individualized set of measures applied, together with the discretion of supervisors, toward matching performance to rewards and responsibilities.  All organizations are far from perfect, but I don't believe the attempt at assessment is generally questioned.

Oddly, the defenders of public educational institutions seem to argue that these institutions are singularly incapable of performing this function.  Hypothetical standardized measures are deemed unfair, and administrators can't be allowed to use discretion to interpret the measures.  They seem to be describing an institution that is fundamentally a failure.  One of the main direct functions of these institutions, oddly enough, is the assessment of our children.  You would think that if any institution had a core competency for assessment, it would be this one.

Shouldn't someone who was trying to defend public educational institutions' ability to direct and assess our children point to their innovative record in directing and assessing their own staffs?

As an aside, I note that when I google "merit pay", google auto-completes it with "for teachers".  Isn't it strange that the debate only happens in this context?  This highlights one of my rules of thumb.  If there is a public argument about a policy, about which I am expected to have an opinion, the outcome of that argument is of little matter.  The system has already failed.

Imagine all of the millions of employment relationships and commercial and technological innovations that percolate around us every day.  They all work precisely because they didn't require your or my input.  I have never engaged in a public conversation about the employment contract my pharmacist might have.  To be honest, I don't care.  And my pharmacist would agree that it's none of my business.  Ditto for the organizational design, the inventory management process, or any number of other policies and relationships that were necessary in order for the pharmacist to fulfill my order.  Same goes for the local bagel shop, auto dealer, or what have you.  All of these places function well precisely because they don't care what I think about how they work, beyond whether I am happy with how they perform their services.

Imagine if NPR's afternoon schedule today was:
1:00pm  Social justice for donut makers:  How early should they have to wake up?
2:00pm  Warehouses:  The downside of forklifts.
3:00pm  Is it fair for your car salesman to get less compensation just because you couldn't qualify for a loan?

This is one of the downsides of pulling activities into the public realm.  Arrangements that generally arise with a dynamic emergent order now become matters of public policy.  Matters that should be none of my business (because that's how they improve) are charged with moral gravitas.  Our silent, mundane, perpetual source of progress is overtaken by a tribal pissing contest.


  1. I hate to break this to you, but in the state of Washington you are supposed to be certified to run a forklift;


  2. Some points to consider:

    1) School administrators don't want merit pay because it means more evaluations of teachers which means the headache of union grievances.

    2) Teacher's unions don't want merit pay because it will mean additional scrutiny and resentment of those denied what they think is due.

    3) Few school board want the hassles of merit pay, because the bulk of public school teachers are represented by unions, which means bruising battles.

    4) Merit pay calculation formulas have several problems, from test score parameters to why certain subject areas get more or less.

    5) Some countries that outperform the US academically, such as South Korea, or Japan, there are few significant merit pay plans for teachers

  3. Thanks for your input, Enrique. Your list are all good examples of how a dysfunctional institution limits the available sources of progress.

    Here's an example of "merit pay", unencumbered by those limits:


    A teacher making $4 million per year should be good news to everyone, but, I fear, the advocacy for higher teacher pay in this country is the worst sort of conservatism - mostly a fight for control of inert institutions. The examples from that article reflect dynamism, but unfortunately, there is limited support for dynamism in either of America's two main political parties.