Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Simple economics, sort of

Cafe Hayek’s Don Boudreaux brought a little simple economics to the realm of merit pay.  Basically, he noted that if teachers work for non-monetary reasons (“we don’t work for the pay”), why is it necessary to raise pay at all.  In fact, why not lower it?

  So if teachers do not respond positively to the prospect of higher monetary rewards, they are unlikely to respond negatively to the prospect of lower monetary rewards. Alternatively, if the problem with merit pay is that measuring teacher performance is simply too difficult, then we can conclude that Fairfax teachers now are as likely to be doing a truly lousy job at educating children as they are to be doing an excellent job at this task. . . .  If teachers aren’t motivated by money, then they’ll work just as diligently at lower pay as they will at higher pay; if cutting pay will, in fact, cause some teachers to quit, their replacements are likely to perform no worse than them.

I’m motivated by monetary reasons, although not solely for this profession.  I think that good teachers have a passion for teaching kids that goes beyond money, just like any good employee puts passion in any job to become the best.  But guess what, I work better when I’m appreciated, monetarily included.  Follow the Jack Welch method, treat the best employees like they are the best employees, and it will make them work even better.  The others will follow and aspire to be better, or they go by the wayside.  I think that my diligence and hard work got me to this AP Conference in Denver (even though I paid for most of it), and don’t think for a second that more pay wouldn’t make things brighter for me.  It’s part of the reason that I don’t do well at union meetings.  Yes, I agree with merit pay.  Why wouldn’t I?  I want to be paid more than the guy that is lazy and accomplishes less.  When the union lackey comes to me and says, “All teachers work hard”, I roll my eyes and realize I’m dealing with either an idiot, or a person in complete denial. 

Boudreaux does have a problem with his argument, and that is the issue of allowing teachers to actually work in the best conditions for success.  A doctor can give great advice, prescribe the best medication, and perform a perfect bypass surgery, but if the patient does not work on their lifestyle, they die.  Do you blame the doctor?  Of course not.  However, the teacher is expected to perform in an environment where they can give perfect service, but the outcome is beyond their control.  We can give excellent advice, have engaging lessons, and put every ounce of passion into the craft, but in the end, if the student (a teenager no less) doesn’t to take the initiative, the student fails.  And the teacher takes the blame.

In the end, this is why teachers are so against merit pay.  Would you trust your pay on the results of a 16 year old?  What about a 12 year old with parents that are never home?  What about a 15 year old who is homeless?  How about a 13 year old who can’t speak English, and is from a home where her parents beat her?  Or a 14 year old who has severe autism?  I’ll tell you one thing, I’ll be more likely to want merit pay if I work at Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, Colorado than if I work at Laytonville High School in Laytonville, California.  Success helps when the tools to succeed are supplied to the players.  The playing field is horridly unequal, and when Boudreaux’s argument drifts in “hey look, colleges have merit pay”, he becomes arrogant and naive.  If I’m not mistaken, college students are paying to be somewhere where they choose to be, and college professors don’t have to deal with a tenth of the issues that secondary level teachers are hassled with.  They also deal with a smaller population and I would argue, do less work.  Since college is a choice, and addresses a smaller population, if we are talking economically, high school teachers should make more.          

In the end, this comes back to the issue of society refusing to address its part in educating children.  Here in Greenwood, society supports education and it is evidenced by student success.  In Ukiah, society is concerned with legalizing marijuana and that is also evidenced by student success, or lack of it.  We could transfer many teachers between schools and guess what, I would anticipate that student achievement would hardly be impacted.  Good teachers are good teachers, just some have the advantage of better tools and supportive communities. 

Mr. Boudreaux is correct that teachers need to stop being hypocritical about wages.  But that won’t solve the problem of education in America.  Society needs to stop being hypocritical about its role in education.  Then we’ll start seeing results. 

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