A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Merit Pay and teaching-- a cautionary tale from the corporate world

My husband, the Sweet Baboo, is a manager at Mammoth Defense Corporation, and he's been busily working on year-end performance reviews, which are then tied to raises for his staff. A couple of weeks ago, he got finished with his first drafts, set them aside and then looked them over.

"The evaluations are too high," Baboo sighed, setting down his laptop with a sigh filled with weariness. "They're gonna get tossed back at me by Ms. Abderite*, my supervisor, and I will be forced to revise some of them downward."

"Do you think you were too nice in your evaluations? Are you being dispassionate and objective?" I asked, although, being married to the man for two decades, I knew better.

"Of course I am. I work my staff hard. My unit productivity is the highest in the division. But I believe in rewarding great effort and assessing it honestly," Baboo explained. "That's why my employee satisfaction numbers are also the highest in the division, even accounting for the poisonous influence of Ms. Abderite."

"Then why the fuss? If you are being honest, why should you be forced to do that? And isn't that screwing over those employees who get a lower evaluation-- and raise-- than they deserve?" I asked, pulling the wrapper off the newspaper. The Business section popped out first. “Mammoth Defense Negotiation Team demands concessions in taxes, benefits,” the first headline trilled. The subhead whispered, “Executive compensation package increased—“Managers must be retained in time of restructuring,” CEO says.”

"Because Ms. Abderite uses a bell curve called Bonus Integrand Resources Diagram for all evaluations. I am only allowed to have so many top ratings, and if I have more, then she’s gonna flip me the BIRD and make me revise downward."

"What?? People still use the bell curve? Why is this considered valid?" I yelped.

"Because we are only given so much money for employee raises, and the MD Corporation sets the amount of the raise based on the Final Annual Rating Table. If I have too many top performers, that costs too much money, and it sets off alarm bells up at Corporate.”

“So because you have put together a great team, hired great people, and they have performed wonderfully, almost everyone will get a LOWER raise than if they were on a lower-performing team or under a better boss than Ms. Abderite?”

“Yes, that’s basically it,” Baboo grunted. “And then, my rightfully resentful staff will start looking for other jobs where they can get the recognition they deserve, where they will stand out more obviously as being exceptional—not to mention the added bonus of escaping Ms. Abderite. Then, when performance goes down, I will be called upon the carpet by Ms. Abderite and screamed at for losing so many good employees.” Baboo stood up. “Let’s go watch ‘Lost’ and forget about this.”

I got up to follow him after I turned over the paper to the news section. “Opt-in period completed for Denver teacher ProComp plan,” popped out at me. I hope that the same mindset doesn’t take over in Denver. But tax money is always more limited as a source of revenue than defense contracts, with their guaranteed profit percentages. What will happen at Lake Wobegon Middle School? Will all teachers be justly compensated? If so, it’ll be a first.

In some states, the only way a teacher can make a decent wage is to get National Board certification. I’ve known some absolutely cracked-up teachers who have managed to get this credential, and the scars they inflicted upon their students lingered even after graduation. I like my boss and I know he likes me in a vague, distant pat-the-nice-doggy kind of way, but if he was able to determine a raise for me, I’m not too sure he could name three specific things that I do in my classroom—my last observation lasted 15 minutes, and my post-observation conference was done by his secretary after being rescheduled three times due to some emergency. I’ve been recruited for years to become an administrator, and if I ever move back to my hometown, I may just do it even though my heart is with the kids and with those Eureka moments you only get in the classroom. It’s the only way I could make an actual living.

My students score well on their state tests, but the only reason why I know that is that I break out my students’ scores from the rest of the population every year so that I’ll know where I screwed up for next year. My AP scores are pretty high, especially considering the socioeconomic spectrum from which we draw. Even though I hate the thought of using student scores for raises—so many variables completely out of my control, not the least of which that many of the kids have realized that they have absolutely nothing at stake if they blow off the tests-- we all know that’s what would happen with merit pay. That, or my charming colleague Mr. Toady would be the richest teacher in school, since he LIVES in the principal’s office. I’m too busy grading papers, preventing altercations, and writing curriculum, damn it.

But my hubby’s experience gives me pause for another reason.

*-from the ancient Greek. Look it up.


At 12/27/05, 4:32 PM, Blogger Fred said...

I used to be one of those HR weenies that forced people to change evaluations. Too many high ratings were impossible, so the thought went.

That's one of the reasons I left the corporate world. Inane policies around evaluations drove me mad.

At 12/27/05, 4:42 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Thanks for the back up, Fred. How did you stand it?

You seem to have recovered, though. And we are all the better for it.

Hope you and The Missus are having a great holiday.

At 12/27/05, 6:35 PM, Blogger Amerloc said...

Damnable Thracians! They screw everything up!

And just for the record, fish jellow may well be an acquired taste, but it's a taste nonetheless.

At 12/27/05, 6:48 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Very good, my classical scholar. Thou hast done well!

And damnable is SUCH a good word to refer to this person, although I am sure it is a lot cleaner than most of the other stuff said about this person.

And "flying insect" is a taste too, especially during biking season-- just not one I want to repeat!

At 12/27/05, 10:35 PM, Blogger Billy V said...

I don't know who you are (saw your comment on Nash's blog). Anybody who quotes Neil Finn must be cool.

At 12/28/05, 12:31 AM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Why thanks, Billy V. I was just learning the lead part to "Don't Dream It's Over" on my new axe at the request of The Sweet Baboo. I saw Neil and Tim in concert this year, and it was absolutely one of the best concerts I've attended. I am a Neil Finn fanatic. You are obviously also blessed with great musical taste... :)

At 12/28/05, 8:46 AM, Blogger NYC Educator said...

I see other potential issues in merit pay in public schools. Nepotism, sexual favors, well-compensated butt-kissing, and who knows what else.

Also, day by day I read stories of administrators who are even crazier than we teachers. That's a little frightening.

At 12/28/05, 9:32 AM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

You are correct about the crazy part, like the nutcase mentioned at http://upthedownstaircase.typepad.com by Nani on December 21?

And this person should determine my salary?

At 12/28/05, 4:28 PM, Anonymous Mike M said...

Ah yes. Let's get down to it, shall we? Most of those proposing merit pay are doing so not to reward excellence in education but to provide political cover. "See? We're doing something about teacher pay! We're rewarding excellence!" In reality, such programs allow lazy, craven legislators to avoid paying teachers what they're worth, and allow lazy, craven administrators to reward cronies, layabouts, toadies and bottom dwellers. I've yet to see a merit pay proposal that would not meet this admittedly cynical definition. But I believe it was Nora Ephron who said that no matter how cynical I get, I just can't seem to catch up.

At 12/28/05, 5:20 PM, Blogger Carol said...

Great post - and fascinating information. Thanks!

At 12/28/05, 6:06 PM, Blogger Henry Cate said...

Another fun wrinkle with forced bell curve distribution evaluations is the question: “What do you do after layoffs?”

I work for a fairly big company. We had some hard times and upper management decided to have some layoffs. We had two rounds and lost a number of our low performers. But guess what? The next year HR told management they still had to have the same percentage for each group of ranking. People who last year had been told they were average performers were now being told they were below average performers. It was great for moral.

Fortunately the CEO was kicked out, and the new CEO said: “This is stupid. You only use a forced ranking when you admit that you can't really do a good job of evaluating people.” It was tossed! Moral has improved.

At 12/28/05, 9:14 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

WOW. Someone more cynical than I am. But I think Mike has hit it on the head. Merit pay is certainly cheaper than making sure all teachers are adequately paid.

How many of us have seen the principal just adore someone who was the least effective teacher?

I think these kinds of situations would be the final nail to drive me out of teaching-- not the low pay.

And I love anyone who quotes Nora Ephron.

At 12/28/05, 9:53 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

By the way, Henry, were they brave enough to call them layoffs? Or did they use some corporate doublespeak for PR purposes? Mammoth Defense Corp likes to use acronyms-- LOTS of them....

Lots of bosses think they can fix morale problems with a cheapo lunch or a casual day where everyone wears Hawaiian shirts-- while they stuff their own pockets. This is the great crisis facing our workplaces today.

At 12/29/05, 11:02 AM, Blogger Wulf said...

The system Mr. Cornelius is stuck using is one we had in the military. The favoritism and butt-kissing NYC mentioned were obvious results, but the subjective evaluation was only part of the process - we had to take advancement tests in our rate (job). No amount of butt-kissing could make up for failing the test. We had to do well in both areas - there was no way around that.

Of course, it also helped us that we would be transferred every couple of years. Fresh start on the butt-kissing.

At 12/29/05, 7:41 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Yeah, the transfer thing would be good. And of course, one of the suspicions is that the higher-ups WANT to break up the team to prop up poorly performing managers who are butt-kissers to the VP....

At 12/31/05, 11:03 AM, Blogger The MAN Fan Club said...

No merit pay in Texas yet. BUT, I too feel like you, my administrator has only been in my classroom once all year and that was early because I am a first year regular ed. teacher. Other than that it is all walk bys since we have open classrooms. In special ed. she gave me a GREAT review the first year and and ALL 3's on a 1-4 scale the second time. AND I thought I was actually doing better the 2nd year. Oh well.

The Bell Curve? We grade on a 1-4 in elementary school. With science I RARELY give as low as a 1 so when my 79 IQ kid is given a 2 I feel justified giving some of my high marginals a 4. Only so many though.


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