“An Unavoidable Element of Subjectivity”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 10th, 2009

Schools need much more than merit pay to recruit and retain good teachers, argues Kevin Carey at the Quick and the Ed.  “They need strong leadership, good facilities, safe working conditions, and the right kind of organizational culture,” he writes. “You can’t paper over the lack of those things by simply tacking on a salary bonus, even a big one, to the existing steps-and-lanes pay scale.”

Carey’s reasoned (and reasonable) take on merit pay feels like a welcome departure from the teacher-quality-and-test-scores über alles refrain more commonly sung by accountability hawks.  Especially in his recognition that “we need to build schools great people want to teach in, and that means fully recognizing their value in all ways, including pay.”

The great schools of the future will be professional meritocracies in a way today’s public schools are not, but not by adding test scores to the mechanistic logic of an industrial-age salary scale. Rather, they’ll spend a great deal of energy on getting the conditions and culture right, and then negotiate substantially higher and substantially more variable salaries with individual teachers. It will be an expensive, time-consuming, imperfect process with an unavoidable element of subjectivity. It will also be much, much better than what most schools use today.

Agreed.  I’d also wager there isn’t one teacher in a thousand who wouldn’t welcome merit pay in a school that spent “a great deal of energy on getting the conditions and culture right.” 

The phrase “unavoidable element of subjectivity” also strikes me as a recognition of the infinite complexity teachers face in working with our most disadvantaged students (any attempt to move past mindless “teachers fear accountability” sloganeering is a welcome development).  Guest-blogging over at Joanne Jacobs, the always insightful Diana Senechal captures the dilemma of nuance-averse accountability well.  “With dumbed-down tests, vapid literacy programs, an overwhelming focus on test prep at the exclusion of essential subjects, and unreliable rating systems, we end up taking a yardstick to a void–and declaring miracles whenever we please,” she wrote.  The flip side of that — the thing that teachers reasonably fear — is that it is too easy to declare failure whenver we please, and hold teachers solely responsible when they are too often reduced to foot soldiers with no control over what or even how they teach. 

This cannot be said often enough: teachers are not by nature accountability-averse.  They are, however, sensibly averse to having an extraordinarily difficult and complex task measured by crude and simplistic tools.

Update:  John Thompson, a vocal teacher advocate who also viewed Carey’s post favorably, takes up a similar theme at This Week in Education.  “I’ve never understood why ‘reformers,’ who are angered by the terrible results of policies set by principals and central offices, respond by attacking teachers who do not set those policies. But the answer, which the New Teacher Center makes clear, is not to attack principals but to use ‘contextual data’ to enhance teacher and principal quality and create a learning culture which attracts and retains educators.”


  1. Agreed, agreed, agreed. And it’s a shame that the comments at Quick/Ed have devolved into a discussion of union busting and the Rhee/Klein School of Dubious Educational Leadership.

    When faced with enormously complex issues like defining and evaluating good teaching using a range of nuanced data, there is a tendency to simplify and objectify, or fall back on time-worn talking points, like the validity of principal evaluations.

    Why wouldn’t we use all the tools, quantitative and qualitative, at our disposal to evaluate both student learning and teacher effectiveness? Because the results will not be crystal clear, and many people are not comfortable with approximations and ambiguity.

    In many ways, parent gossip in the bleachers at Little League games is a better evaluation of local teachers than any other model.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — September 14, 2009 @ 10:45 am

  2. Nancy Flanagan wrote:
    In many ways, parent gossip in the bleachers at Little League games is a better evaluation of local teachers than any other model.

    But almost everyone who be horrified if you evaluated teachers by asking parents :-/

    My daughter’s elementary school had an interesting variant — I learned to look at which teachers got the children of other teachers in their classes…

    Comment by Rachel — September 14, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

  3. I think carefully collected parent surveys, in the aggregate and combined with other data, would provide one strong indicator of teacher quality. Parent impressions could be a pretty good gauge, especially in elementary school, of teachers’ ability to engage and motivate students. And that’s what parents care most about: Does my child want to go to school? Can my child articulate what he’s learning? Does the teacher care about my child–is s/he committed to their learning? Those are important things.

    As a teacher in the district where my children were students, I was looking more to avoid certain teachers than get my child placed with a specific teacher. By the time they hit middle school, it was about selecting the best team, rather than individual teachers. And I often selected different teams for my two kids, who had different learning profiles and needs.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — September 15, 2009 @ 9:10 am

  4. [...] as well as the comments by The Quick and Ed’s Kevin Carey, the Core Knowledge blog’s Robert Pondiscio, and the conservative Atlantic blogger Megan [...]

    Pingback by Arguments On Merit Pay, With And Without Merit | Edwize — March 1, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

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