First Person

Why Bother with Merit Pay?

What is the point of merit pay for teachers? Isn’t that the first question we should be asking? And then, given that answer, do we think that it will work? Let’s take a look!

(Let me be clear here: for the sake of this discussion, I am talking about some sort of compensation structure by which individual teachers get bonuses and/or raises based on their own students’ performance on some sort of test or measure.)

One possible reason to adopt merit pay is that it seems more just, in a way. That is, it would be only be fair if better teachers should be paid more money. I mean, who wouldn’t think that better teachers — even if by “better teachers” we mean “teachers who get better results” — deserve more money? We could argue about which outcomes and measures are meaningful, but the basic idea has a lot of appeal.

There is another big potential reason to adopt merit pay — a far more compelling possibility. If a merit pay program would somehow lead to improved outcomes, who would oppose such a thing? But I wonder if that result is even plausible, given the realities and details that so many people want to ignore. So, let’s think about what the theory of action (i.e. how/why such programs lead to the desired outcomes) might be. How could a merit pay program lead to improved outcomes? I have three big questions.

1) My first question about any merit pay program would have to be, “Where is the money going to come from?” Obviously, that is related to “How big a program are we talking about?”

There are lots of reason to building large program, covering many teachers and with large bonuses (see below). However, this runs up against a problem that is not seen in most other industries. You see, better teaching – even better outcomes – does not produce the revenue to pay for these bonuses. A better salesperson will generate greater revenue, revenue than can be used to pay for his/her bonus. A more efficient repairperson can cover more repairs, saving the employer on headcount, thus economically justifying a bonus. But what about a better teacher?

The public schools already have enormous market share. More importantly, additional students drawn from private schools do not generate additional revenue. Additional student drawn from charter schools generate less than average revenue. So, where would the money come from?

Washington, D.C., appears to be on the brink of starting a large new merit pay program. However, it is being paid for with private funds. What happens when those grants run out? New York City’s public school system is 25 times the size of D.C.’s. Are there private grants that would pay for an equivalent program in NYC? This is simply not a scalable solution, neither as a long term solution nor as a broad solution for many districts.

2) My next question is, “How much money will it take to alter the behavior of existing teachers?”

That is one of the basic principles of merit pay programs, right? That is, by providing monetary incentives, teachers will work differently than they would otherwise. Well, would what it take?

We already know that teachers are not particularly sensitive to monetary incentive. After all, they chose to go into a famously low-paying profession, one without enormous financial upside. (Yes, given decades of experience and very advanced degrees, they can make over $100,000 in some districts, but that amount of experience and education yields far greater compensation in other fields.) There are decades of research to back this up — research that shows that teachers are not particularly motivated by financial rewards. We should, therefore, expect them to need even larger bonuses to alter behavior in education than in other fields.

But we are still missing a theory of action. There is a still a black box or underwear gnomes scenario (i.e. a situation in which a key step that is never explored or explained). If teachers do not know what to do to be better, how is paying them bonuses going to help solve that problem? If, on the other hand, teachers know but are too lazy to do what it takes, how is offering these already lazy and monetarily insensitive folks bonuses going to change that? How is the possibility of bonuses going to alter behavior?

I think that this line of thinking contains the most common mistake people who support merit pay make. They confuse how they might respond to such a structure with how others might respond. People in finance are accustomed to a large bonus component of their compensation, and they believe that this system works. However, the people who have gone into that industry already knew that going in. This is a system that works for them. But teachers did not go into such a system, and clearly were not looking for even the possibility of massive compensation. Why expect them to respond like people in finance might?

I am not suggesting that there is not some level of bonus that would alter behavior. Rather, I am asking what it is, or what the rational basis for determining it might be. Is there a research basis for establishing the size of these bonuses? Is there even a logic behind the setting of merit pay bonuses for teachers beyond “This is how much money we have raised”?

3) My last big question is, “How much money would it take to significantly alter the composition of the teacher pool?”

There are many who believe that we have the wrong people in teaching — that we need harder workers or smarter people, or whatever. Many of them are merit pay proponents, and they see such programs as attracting more of the right people to the classroom.

An argument that I have heard quite a few times suggests that some people choose not go into teaching because they resent the idea of not being rewarded for their excellence. This argument suggests that what is important to them is being recognized as being better than their colleagues. I suppose that I have some sympathy for this argument. After all, who does not want their accomplishments recognized? But that is not the same thing as insisting that one’s recognition come in the form of a check! Is anyone seriously suggesting that making $100 bonuses available to the best teachers will significantly alter the pool of teachers? That is simply a laughable suggestion, right? If recognition of excellence is important, that can be addressed in ceremonies, announcements and/or public bulletins, and done far less expensively than merit pay programs while offering far greater inventive than small checks.

I understand that there are many people who never consider going into teaching, or who rule it out, because of the level of compensation. But small or even moderate bonuses are not going to change that. I understand that people want to be rewarded for their hard work and accomplishments, and some people expect more money for that than others. So, again, how large would the bonuses have to be, and how many would have to be available, to alter the career decisions of a significant number of people?

For example, if a teacher could potentially double his/her first year salary, but only one one out of a thousand teachers would get the bonus, would that possibility attract a lot of new applicants?

4) My last question is really a composite of the first three. “If the money available for such a program is neither enough to alter behaviors nor attract new people to teaching, isn’t merit pay just a way to reward existing high performers? And how does that actually improve our schools?”

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.