Second thoughts on the pros and cons of merit pay for teachers

If you were a traveler about to visit an island inhabited only by educators, your guidebook might offer this sage advice “..and whatever you do, don’t bring up the subject of merit pay for teachers.”

Educators are pretty thick-skinned except when the conversation turns to merit pay based on measuring student learning.

I sometimes am struck by the similarities between teachers’ objections to efforts to measure their performance and impose standards on their work and physicians’ objections to the very same initiatives in health care.

Teachers are quick to object to student-based measures of teacher performance because these fail to take into account the individual set of circumstances that each student brings to the classroom–the behavioral problems, the learning problems, the difficult family lives. Many students make only the most incremental progress. Is it fair to hold the teacher accountable?

And then there are all the intangible benefits of the teacher-student relationship that are not captured in test scores. How do you measure a teacher’s influence on a student’s social growth and increased self-confidence?

Today, hospitals and physicians are routinely measured and ranked on all sorts of indicators, such as the survival rates of their cardiac patients and patient satisfaction.

At first, physicians said measuring physician performance couldn’t be done–or at least not in any intelligent way. Caring for patients was too complex. There were too many individual factors in patient health that had nothing to do with the physician. How could you judge a physician based on patient outcomes for cardiac conditions when some patients eat well, exercise, are affluent and have extensive social support networks while others are smokers, sedentary and low-income, have diabetes and little in the way of of social support?

Do doctors like being measured by patient health outcomes? Undoubtedly not. Is the data on them absolutely precise? Is it completely meaningful? Probably not, but still, aren’t we all glad there’s an attempt to measure their performance because this process, as imperfect as it is, is weeding out the really poor doctors and making other doctors better. Quality health care is too important not to try to measure it.

Even if you think you’ve made up your mind on merit pay for educators, are convinced it’s a bad idea, ask yourself the following questions: Are you for or against efforts to measure how well physicians are doing their jobs? How do you feel about efforts to measure how well hospitals are doing theirs?

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Pros and cons of merit pay for teachers

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