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Bruno: Merit Pay Isn't "Corporate Reform"

CashbagDiane Ravitch has a long piece up criticizing President Obama for the apparent mismatch between his education rhetoric and education policy agenda.  She makes a lot of arguments - some of which I agree with and some of which I don't - but her points against teacher merit pay in particular jumped out at me.  

Ravitch rightly points out two of the most conspicuous failed merit pay experiments, but I think she actually misses one of the most underrated arguments against such pay schemes: namely, that most employers seem to think they're not a great idea.

If performance pay was a good idea for teachers, you'd expect similar kinds of incentive schemes to be fairly common among employers, especially in the private sector.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, "incentive-paid workers" - i.e., "those who receive some portion of their earnings based on sales or output, rather than a unit of time such as an hourly rate or monthly salary" - constitute only 5% of the private workforce.

Now I'm not one to assume that the private sector always perfectly represents the ideals of efficiency. It's hard to see, however, how you can reconcile the supposed virtues of teacher merit pay schemes with the fact that private employers seem not to care for them.  The rarity of add-on incentive pay schemes also raises the question of why teachers, almost alone among U.S. employees, should be singled to work under them.

Of course, the traditional teacher salary schedule is itself somewhat anomalous in its rigidity and should probably be reformed.  When reformers propose merit pay as a solution, however, they're typically proposing something that is in its own way just as unusual.

One of the reasons I don't like the phrase "corporate reform" is that it concedes too much of the argument, as if the proposed reforms have demonstrated their efficacy in the private sector and it only remains to be seen if they will work as well in schools.  Frequently, however, this is demonstrably not the case.  

Merit pay isn't a "corporate" reform at all.  In fact, corporations seem not to think much of it.

- PB (@MrPABruno) (Image source)


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Merit pay in education is an awful idea. It exists in the private sector only for positions whose performance can be objectively measured. Most job performance is measurable only in subjective terms, thus making the task of deciding who gets the bonuses and who should be left out next to impossible. Giving merit pay for teachers would result in inflated performance evaluations and cross-the-board bonuses, which are tantamount to raises.

Teachers' pay is not the problem, at least not in the U.S. What most teachers want is to be able to teach without disiplinary or administrative distractions. Administrations that back up their teachers and don't hassle them get the best results.

Actually disincentive pay in the corporate world. Bonuses for failure on Wall Street. In education, it's bonuses for teaching the kids who score high. Same difference.

Bonus pay is a distraction from the real move, which is to push through firing schemes and end vet. protections. Reformers can not go around arguing that firing teachers is the way to improve education only, pay raises for "rock star" teachers is a way to give cover and allow people like Rhee to claim she really does love career public educators. In DC merit is given but in exchange you give up tenure rights. Why would you offer merit pay to a great teacher and then make it easier to fire that person? The point is to end tenure rights, the merit pay is only a distraction.

You're confused by the term "corporate reform", Bruno. It refers to a hostile corporate takover of public education assets, not to a theory of school improvement based on models of corporate efficiency. Pearson, Microsoft, News Corporation, and other corporate players are interested in their own profits, not in good teaching.

The goal of merit pay isn't to reward merit at all, but rather it is a strategy to establish dominance of public education at every level, and create a captive market for useless and toxic management and control policies.

@Mary - That's an interesting distinction/definition re: "corporate reform", but it doesn't seem to be one that's commonly adhered to. I think I'm using the term as it is commonly used. See, for example, this from Ravitch:


No, Paul, Mary is right.

"Corporate reform" is intended as a pejorative. It results from an attempt by those of us who criticize the currently dominant education policies being promoted by the Obama Admin and funded by large foundations such as Gates, Broad and Walton, to clarify that those policies are not true, beneficial reform.

No one who espouses those policies uses the term "corporate reform" (unless perhaps they're doing it sarcastically). It's interesting that you wouldn't have immediately read it as a pejorative, which tells me that we should go back to the drawing board for a clearer term.


I think the point is that, as applied to stuff like merit pay, the term "corporate" is used as a pejorative inaccurately by people who both dislike and are ignorant about corporations.

Neither, @Stuart. It's an effort to capture in shorthand the fact that the set of education policies in question are all based on the belief that schools should be run like businesses.

@Caroline - I think you're misunderstanding a couple of points.

First, approximately what @Stuart said. I fully realize that "corporate reform" is intended to be a pejorative term. Indeed, the point at the end of my post was precisely that it's - ironically - *not as pejorative as it's intended to be* in some respects, since it unnecessarily concedes some of the reformers arguments (e.g., that these reforms have demonstrated their effectiveness in corporate contexts). I'm actually not sure why you think I didn't realize it was a pejorative term.

Second, Mary's - separate - claim that I was addressing was that the phrase "corporate reform" is about "hostile corporate takeover of public education assets, not to a theory of school improvement based on models of corporate efficiency". I think the Ravitch link I provided demonstrates that that's not actually the case.

I know of no corporation that does not evaluate their professional employees in some rational manner with some correlation between the evaluation and the salary action. Does anyone commenting here actually have any experience in the private sector as a professional? I couldn't easily find the reference to see how "merit pay" was defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics but I do have 30+ years in the private sector and I can assure you that companies do evaluate employee performance and reward excellence.

@Andy: No need to look for the BLS definition; they don't use the term "merit pay", but right there in the post I give the definition they use for "incentive paid workers": "those who receive some portion of their earnings based on sales or output, rather than a unit of time such as an hourly rate or monthly salary". Such workers are extremely rare in the private sector.

Of course in the private sector employee pay is, to some degree, differentiated, often based on holistic, largely subjective assessments of performance. My point is that such systems, whatever their virtues, have little in common with most merit pay proposals for teachers.

Bruno, please take a look at this astonishing Eli Broad interview from spring of 2009, in which he lays out exactly his plans to force the merit-pay compensation system on American public education. It is short, and some of the 2009 comments are mine.


"Earlier, he’d explained his interest in the way school systems are run: “We don’t know anything about how to teach or reading curriculum or any of that. But what we do know about is management and governance.”

For several years, corporate reformists held forth the claim that private for-profit investment would spur "innovation" that would improve education outcomes measurably. At the same time, their "non-profit" foundations, described so cynically by Broad in this interview, pretended that they were pure philanthropies, advocating in the press and lobbying politically for good social policy, and had no ulterior profit motive.

New York, then, is a good case to reexamine today. No, the data don't support corporatist claims for improvement, and Klein went straight to Murdoch's for-profit Wireless Generation venture.

I follow Diane Ravitch closely on her Bridging Differences blog, and comment there often. She doesn't need me to clarify her ideas on why the corporatists don't respect their own data; she's done so at great length. I recommend you look into it more deeply, if you're really trying to characterize her stand.

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