Sunday, October 25, 2009


By Doug Lasken | Op-Ed in the LA Daily News

10/25/2009 03:48:34 PM  -- WE live in a time when government is a form of theater; it manages us by appearing to manage us.

The current presidential administration, perhaps because it came in with so much support, has broken new ground in what I call fantasy government. It rails against health insurance companies, after giving them everything they want; it makes a show about debating our presence in Afghanistan, when all that is debated is the number of troops; it bemoans excessive bonuses on Wall Street, after making those bonuses possible.

And, now, it demands that public schools "reform" themselves, in terms so vague that any school can appear to comply while doing nothing.

The latest administration push is to promote merit pay for public school teachers rather than the guaranteed pay scales achieved by teachers unions. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is using the $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" funds as incentive for "progress towards" merit pay.

It is at this point that the reader will be wondering whether I'm a pro-union stooge defending the status quo or a "change agent" who sees how merit pay works in the private sector to enhance performance, and wants to extend that benefit to teaching.

Sorry to disappoint: I'm not really in either camp. I write here to suggest only that the Obama administration, and the states reacting to its efforts, are not promoting a policy on teacher merit pay, but merely broaching the subject, or, if you will, making noise. In pursuance of the Race to the Top funds, the California state Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have eliminated a law that forbade use of student test scores in evaluating teachers. That's the easy part.

Merit pay for teachers is an idea worth considering, but it will be complicated, both in political venues and in the field, to carry out. If any level of government were really interested in implementing merit pay, here are the three key questions that would be discussed in the newspaper coverage of the policy development:

1. How to determine "merit" for teachers.

In California the only objective measure available is the California Standards Test, given each year in the spring to grades 2 through 11. There is no test in September to establish a baseline.

The "value added" approach is a rational first step in achieving a baseline. It is used in Texas, Chicago and some southern states. Value added uses the scores of the three previous years as the baseline. This approach may be the way to go in California, but it would not work as we are currently structured.

Kindergarten, first grade and high school seniors do not take the CST. How will teachers of these grades be evaluated? Even if primary were evaluated, what would the baseline be?

2. Even if all grade levels were tested, how do we factor student transiency into the baseline pay?

Transiency is a major statistical factor. In Los Angeles Unified School District, thousands of students transfer every year in and out of schools. There are migrant children who follow their parents' seasonal work, children going in and out of home schooling, children moving to California from states whose standardized testing is structured differently from ours. How do we derive their baseline?

3. How do we factor in the impact various types of students have on measures of teacher performance, and how can we keep a collegial environment among faculties?

Teachers already tend to compete for the brightest students, but evaluating teachers with student scores poses a counterintuitive problem: The highest scoring students have less room to go up. It's easier to show improvement from lower scoring students.

How do we factor those differences? How do we keep teachers from fighting over which students will be most likely to improve? Might we want to consider awarding merit pay to an entire school that has used peer assistance for struggling teachers and smart management to achieve academic growth? This might work better than trusting a bureaucrat in Sacramento to figure things out.

Bertrand Russell noted that society is motivated by strife, not discussion. It's more fun for the villagers to march with flaming torches demanding that the teachers be held accountable, than to have rational discussions of how to hold them accountable. My own problem with the flaming torches approach is that it gets government off the hook for actually figuring out policy. I say, let's settle down and get some real policy.

Doug Lasken is a retired LAUSD teacher and freelancer. Write to him at

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