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More On Merit Pay For Teachers…

July 5th, 2007 · 9 Comments

I have to admit that I’m getting a little tired of articles like this that posit that “higher test scores may not be the best way to judge teacher effectiveness”. My knee-jerk response? No @#!$. I am well aware of the fact that productivity gets distorted when a job involves more than one dimension and only one of these dimensions is explicitly rewarded. (See this page for more detail and examples.) As such, researchers also point out that in some cases it MAY be better to not pay for performance at all in these scenarios. I think the *may* aspect of this conclusions goes largely ignored, and the educational system is in a state of “well, the plan we have may not be globally optimal, so we’re just going to do nothing instead”. I get the concerns about teaching to a test, I really do, but it seems as though there are a couple of straightforward solutions:

1. Oversee educators’ lesson plans to make sure that, at least in the planning phase, real content isn’t being sacrificed for test scores.
2. Even better, make the standardized tests more comprehensive in terms of what students are supposed to be learning. Advanced Placement tests do this quite well, and in fact it makes a lot of sense in this context to “teach to the test”. My suspicion is that the underlying problem is that the education community has little idea of exactly what it is that non-AP students should be learning!

That said, I have a secondary issue with the teachers’ protests that isn’t getting nearly as much attention in the press. Consider the following excerpt from the article:

Deborah Torres-Gore, who teaches second- and third-graders in Fontana, Calif., said other factors must be considered when judging the effectiveness of teachers. “When I look into the eyes of a student who I have taught in the past — or I stand at the door in the morning and my students say Mrs. Gore, ‘I love you,’ or Mrs. Gore, ‘You’re such a good teacher’ — am I effective or not? I think I’m effective,” she said.

Apparently what others perceive as “effective” I perceive as “getting one’s ego stroked”. These people want to be considered as professional adults, and, as such, need to realize that being effective and being popular are not the same thing, and are often at odds with each other. Even here at Harvard, I’ve had to weigh the costs and benefits of disciplining students for things like cheating, knowing that these students would likely be upset and give me poor ratings as a result. (This logic held empirically some, but not all of the time, and I decided that the cost was worth it.) Furthermore, it is rumored that a particular instructor used to get good ratings because he did almost the exact exam problems in his review session the night before. (He is actually a very good teacher, so I’m hoping it’s just a rumor.) My point comes back again to the idea of devision of labor- how much of a teacher’s job is instruction and how much is that of a social worker, therapist or even life coach?

I fully realize that I am not representative, but in looking back I can say without doubt that Josh Angrist was by far the most effective undergraduate professor I had. How is this relevant? There are a number of reasons- first, for those of you that have never interacted with Prof. Angrist, he may as well be Ben Stein’s drier and more sarcastic cousin (and even bears a striking resemblance to the actor). Not exactly the friendliest of guys, at least not to undergraduates! Furthermore, I can reasonably conclude that this guy has no idea who I am, for we have never had a face-to-face conversation. (Well, there was that time when I showed up late and he stopped class and forced me to make my way to the seat directly in front of him, but my guess is that wasn’t the first or last time that has happened.) These tidbits don’t exactly add up to the “I love you” sentiment of the teacher quoted above, but I learned more in Prof. Angrist’s econometrics class than anywhere else. More importantly, even though I may not have realized it at the time, in retrospect I am very appreciative to have had this experience, and am likely better off than I would have been with an instructor who focused more on being popular. Think about it- an easy way to be popular is to not be challenging, since students then feel very good about themselves and their abilities. While self-esteem is clearly important, it is not ultimately helpful to the student that thinks he is going great and then fails his standardized test and is “left behind”.

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