Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Insanity Continues: Teacher Merit Pay Follow Up

After someone shared my previous post on teacher merit pay, the following comment was left. Given that others in the private sector likely have similar reactions I felt it was important to provide a response.

This article/editorial is the number one reason why it is so freaking frustrating to be on a school board while simultaneously operating a business division with many many employees all of whom are paid based upon their merit (read value) to the company. School system management nor accounting resembles little that is seen in a successful business venture.

While I think this person’s first sentence is addressed in my original post, I shall reiterate some of the points previously made and slightly expand on them in an attempt to provide additional clarification. I should first state that I’m also a school board member, and I also work in the private sector. Part of my role involves managing other employees, as well as managing the firm’s internal 360-degree review and engagement assessment processes. Given this, I have some experience in trying to understand, “measure” and improve the value that employees bring to a firm.

This person’s basic assertion is that we should be paying people based on their merit, or the value they bring to the organization that employs them. Setting aside larger scale influences such as regional economic factors impacting costs of living + living wage issues, competition within and between industries for employees, etc., I don’t necessarily disagree with this assertion. But, as I pointed out in my previous post, the key is to figure out how to define and measure this value.

Most businesses in the private sector come at it from multiple angles, with specific measures varying by both the type of business and the type of employee. The underlying definition often involves how well the employee contributes to a company’s profit margins and growth (though this is increasingly being considered from larger societal and generational perspectives). A key thing to note, however, is that businesses generally don’t rely on one primary measure of this perceived “value.”

Measuring value may involve the number of calls made per hour for a call center, or the number of “widgets” assembled per hour for certain manufacturing jobs. Customer service reviews may play a role. In various types of consulting firms, profit margins on individual projects that one worked on and/or managed may play a role. Reviews from immediate supervisors, employees and even those one manages can also come into play. Increasingly, the contribution an employee makes to his/her community via volunteering is a consideration. And the list goes on.

Both education and experience are also commonly used to establish various minimum required levels for promotions and pay raises (as well as initial salaries). It’s just not as commonly spelled out or as formal as it is in education and other government jobs, but it’s there nevertheless.

In addition, more and more firms are also attempting to assess and improve their employees’ levels of engagement. This often involves seeking employee feedback on everything from the work environment and hours, to salaries, benefits and amenities. The employees end up having a say in how they’re compensated.

Even focusing on the relatively narrow definition of profit margins and growth, most businesses still seek to use multiple measures when determining an individual employee’s contributions. While it varies by industry, company and employee, the number of variables impacting profit and growth are too many to focus on one primary measure or even a few measures. It wouldn’t be fair to the employee, nor would it tell the whole story to the employer.

So if that’s the case for businesses, how hard must it be to measure a teacher’s contribution to student success when a) there are a large number of potential ways to measure student success, b) we don’t all agree on how the various indicators of student success should be measured or weighted and c) there are a significant number of varying factors impacting student success beyond a teacher’s control. We certainly can’t focus on a single measure, especially one as limited as test scores. Nor can we only use the review of a single principal. They can’t fully capture a teacher’s contribution to student success, and therefore can’t provide an indication of the teacher’s value, or merit.

Which is why, as I pointed out in my last post, I believe we have to start by providing teachers and staff with a competitive base pay and benefits package, with starting salaries and raises based on education and experience. This base pay also needs to be competitive with other professions and reflective of teaching's actual value to society (and reflective of local/regional costs of living), with raises, added pay and/or bonuses based on a combination of experience, continuing education/professional development, additional duties taken on and reviews. And those reviews should be more encompassing like the Danielson framework or national Board measures (as a teacher pointed out to me). In my opinion, this is what an acceptable form of “merit-pay” looks like.

Until there is broader recognition within the education community that quantitative measures like test scores or graduation rates are both reflective of actual student success AND can be tied to individual teachers, they shouldn’t be used to assess value. At the very least they should only account for a very small percentage of all that is evaluated. Teachers should also have a hand in designing how that system looks and works in their local districts, helping to tweak and modify it as we would move forward.

Moving on to this person’s second sentence, [s]chool system management nor accounting resembles little that is seen in a successful business venture, I would suggest he misunderstands the primary mission of a public school district – to provide equitable, good quality education for ALL students served. While there are certain aspects relative to efficiencies on an annual basis and some management practices that school districts can incorporate from the business world, you can’t operate a school district exactly like a business. Education for ALL doesn’t equate to maximizing annual profit margins and growth. Anyone who doubts that should spend some time reviewing the generally miserable track record of private charter schools.

This post is already longer than intended, so I’d encourage this person and anyone else with questions to sit down with their district’s superintendent and finance director to get a better understanding of how a school district’s management and accounting differ from a business, and why. It’s fairly apparent that many of our legislators haven’t done that.

I appreciate this individual’s willingness to serve his community. However, as a board member and private sector consultant I find his response and apparent ignorance of what it takes to successfully educate all kids in an equitable manner equally “freaking” frustrating.

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