Sweet are the Uses of Adversity

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jay has lost that loving feeling after the failure of the merit pay plan in Nashville. Mike Antonucci quite rightly points out that “If we want to evaluate teachers on their performance, we should be prepared for performance pay programs to be evaluated on their performance.”

It was worth trying, but it merit pay didn’t work, so should move on to more promising reform strategies, right?


What this study seems to show is that the Nashville program didn’t work. That’s valuable information, and we might want to figure out why a program in Little Rock found positive results, while the one in Nashville did not. Inch by inch, we just might figure something out.

Greg and I have each noted in different ways that getting this figured out is a very tricky business. We agree that maximizing competition within the system is key to sorting out the incentives properly. The Nashville study seems to reinforce the view that this about drawing the right people into the teaching profession rather than dangling a carrot out in front of your current teachers. This subject however deserves careful study across multiple programs over a long period of time.

When results by teacher vary so profoundly, it strikes me as inconceivable that we cannot develop a system to treat teachers like professionals. A profession that offers summers off and high job security but has a union negotiated pay scale that incrementally rewards you for getting old doesn’t seem likely to garner as many highly capable people as needed into the profession.

A Nashville pilot program dangling out a $15,000 carrot doesn’t seem likely to get the best and the brightest out of Vanderbilt to forego that MBA and go into teaching. It didn’t seem to motivate the teachers who were already there either.

I don’t know the answers. I do know that we need a lot of people trying a lot of different things and sharing their results and experiences-that’s the primordial soup of innovation. Schools run by the teachers like law firms, parent and student satisfaction measurement models, hybrid model schools with rolling thunder value added assessment systems, and whatever else we can come up with- bring it on.

How about a 33 year old hedge fund manager turning out killer content from a closet? Yes please!

The same logic applies for merit pay- we need experimentation and study. There were many failed attempts to build a plane before the Wright Brothers, and even the Wright Brother plane was more likely to get you killed than fly you to another city, state or country.

We all need to take a deep breath, keep our expectations reasonable, and learn from failures like the Nashville program.


11 Responses to Sweet are the Uses of Adversity

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Remind me, Matt, is that Super Chart! or Son of Super Chart!!

    As I said in the comments on that earlier post, I think your formula of rock star pay for rock star teachers is a key part of the solution, but mainly because of the rock star part rather than the pay part. We don’t just need rewards for excellence, we need the right kind of rewards (mostly not pay, although pay will have to be part of it or there’ll be no credibility) for the right kind of excellence.

  2. matthewladner says:

    I agree- and this is exactly why we need experiments. We don’t know what it will take to get those hard charging Vandy kids to teach in Nashville schools. I like you suspect that higher starting pay is part of the solution, but no one knows how much it needs to be a part of the solution. There is only one way to find out.

  3. matthewladner says:

    Oh, and that is Super Chart!

    Son of Super Chart! is the one showing multiple bell curves by years of experience.

  4. AB says:

    If merit pay can’t work for helping the existing teacher corps, what makes you think there is a system that can identify who would be talented enough to enter the profession at all?

  5. matthewladner says:

    Currently we are very poor at identifying in advance who will be a good teacher. Some foreign systems seem to have done better at it, but a rational reaction to a “bad teacher detector” on the front-end is to remove those who are consistently ineffective in the classroom.

  6. Greg Forster says:

    The best system for identifying good teachers is school choice!

  7. AB says:

    But how will school choice solve the problem if there are bad teachers at every school, public and private? Most importantly, it ignores the fact that either way the parent has to pay for the education. I think the solution is homeschooling.

  8. matthewladner says:

    Ooops- I should have said “a lack of a bad teacher detector.”

  9. Patrick says:

    So this study shows that paying teachers more money doesn’t make them better – so that means we can ignore union complaints about inadequate teacher pay…right?

  10. matthewladner says:

    You might think that. You might very well think that indeed.

    I couldn’t possibly comment.

  11. Daniel Earley says:

    Old Tennessee Proverb: Don’t expect Falcons at your bigger bird feeder if its placed in your chicken coop.

    Ok, maybe a new Tennessee proverb.

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