The Ridiculousness of Teacher Merit Pay

Aaron CarrollI watched the Aaron Carroll video below, Pay for Performance. As you ought to know, because I write about him a lot, Carroll is a doctor and an healthcare policy experts — one of the few you ought to listen to, and one of the main people behind The Incidental Economist. And the video is about the effectiveness of paying doctors more for improved outcomes. For example, a doctor might be paid more for getting a patient with high blood pressure on medication. It sounds like a good idea — and one that would more than pay for itself.

The problem is that in general, it doesn’t work. The studies on it generally don’t show any effect and those that do are small studies that show modest and short-term effects. As Carroll points out, “pay for performance” also has a potential down side: it may turn medicine into a kind of libertarian dog-eat-dog world where doctors only do what is in their financial interest. I actually think this is the crux of the matter.

I don’t have the highest regard for doctors. I used to teach physics to premed students, and I’ve never really recovered. But even I admit that doctors generally want to do well by their patients. Sure, they value their over-compensated jobs, but they really do care. I even saw much altruism among my premed students. In fact, it is this altruism that shows the lie to the conservatives’ favorite healthcare “reform” idea: tort reform. The idea is that doctors over-treat patients to protect themselves from law suits. But studies have shown very clearly that such “reform” doesn’t work, because doctors tend to over-treat patients because the doctors actually care about the health of their patients and not because they are afraid of being sued.

Alfie KohnSo it isn’t surprising that doctors don’t treat patients better when you pay them more. They are already treating patients as well as they can. If you are really interested in the quality of care patients receive, reduce the case load of doctors so they can spend more time with patients. But of course, that would be too difficult and cost too much money, so we certainly aren’t going to do that! (Although note: American doctors make twice what they do in other advanced economies: France, England, Japan, Germany, Canada. If they were paid in accordance with international standards, they could spend twice as much time as they do with patients. But we can’t do that because the AMA is a powerful lobby and it doesn’t want more immigration of well qualified doctors into the United States.)

This all got me thinking about “merit pay” for teachers. I’ve always thought it was a really bad idea for the same reason that it is for doctors. The truth is that most teachers care very much about teaching their students. Again, if we really cared about improving education, we would do things that help the teachers like reducing class sizes, providing supplies, incentivizing continuing education. But we don’t. We do the easy things: give students standardized tests, deny teachers worker protections, and generally treat them like they are line workers at a manufacturing plant where the fastest worker gets a monthly bonus.

Alfie Kohn — my favorite education policy expert — wrote a great article on this subject over a decade ago, The Folly of Merit Pay. In it, he noted that schools have been implementing “pay for performance” schemes as far back as the middle 19th century. In each case, it failed. So things went back to the way they were until “reformers” forget about the previous failures. Try, try again! Because it just has to work. Economists tell us that incentives are all that matters. You want better teachers, pay them more! Well, sure. But what if pay isn’t the main issue:

In 2000, Public Agenda questioned more than 900 new teachers and almost as many college graduates who didn’t choose a career in education. The report concluded that, while “teachers do believe that they are underpaid,” higher salaries would probably be of limited effectiveness in alleviating teacher shortages because considerations other than money are “significantly more important to most teachers and would-be teachers.” Two years later, 44 percent of administrators reported, in another Public Agenda poll, that talented colleagues were being driven out of the field because of “unreasonable standards and accountability.”

Meanwhile, a small California survey, published last year in Phi Delta Kappan, found that the main reason newly credentialed teachers were leaving the profession was not low salaries or difficult children. Rather, those who threw in the towel were most likely to cite what was being done to their schools in the name of “accountability.” And the same lesson seems to hold cross-culturally. Mike Baker, a correspondent for BBC News, discovered that an educational “recruitment crisis” exists almost exclusively in those nations “where accountability measures have undermined teachers’ autonomy.”

That unhappy educators have a lot more on their minds than money shouldn’t be surprising in light of half a century of research conducted in other kinds of workplaces. When people are asked what’s most important to them, financial concerns show up well behind such factors as interesting work or good people to work with. For example, in a large survey conducted by the Families and Work Institute, “salary/wage” ranked 16th on a list of 20 reasons for taking a job. (Interestingly, when managers are asked what they believe matters most to their employees, they tend to mention money—and then proceed to manage on the basis of that error.)

As for the mid-19th century experiment:

Wade Nelson, a professor at Winona State University, dug up a government commission’s evaluation of England’s mid-19th-century “payment by results” plan. His summary of that evaluation: Schools became “impoverished learning environments in which nearly total emphasis on performance on the examination left little opportunity for learning.” The plan was abandoned.

But it isn’t just crazy educational liberal wackos like Alfie Kohn and me who think this. Marie Gryphon of the Cato Institute has noted a number of problems with the whole “pay for performance” scheme, including the way it incentivizes teacher cheating and favors teachers working in high income school districts.

No Child Left Behind - Mike Keefe

Of course, maybe this is why we don’t hear so much about “merit pay” as we used to. Now the focus is on destroying teacher “tenure.” The main thing is that our solutions to educational problems should always be simple. But more important here is that both of these ideas for supposedly improving education have the result of making teaching a less appealing profession. Although as I follow the debate, that seems to be what education “reform” is all about. There doesn’t seem to be much concern about the children. It seems more about putting teachers in their place and destroying public sector unions.

What’s sad is that low paid teachers are very likely to fail in their efforts to protect their rights as workers and the ability to do their jobs well. Doctors, on the other hand, being wealthy will probably have no problem combating the equally harmful policy changes that are facing them. But that’s America!

And the la-hand of the Freeeeee!
And the hoooome, of thhhhhe, braaaave!


Note that money does matter as I’ve written about in the past. But there is an interesting disconnect in the education “reform” movement. People get upset when teachers go on strike, because the idea is that teachers ought to be willing to live in poverty because all they care about are “the kids.” At the same time, the “reform” movement wants to treat teachers as if they were the same as manufacturing line workers. The point is not that financial incentives don’t help; it is that they aren’t that important and that they certainly aren’t the silver bullet that will fix our educational system.

Easy Ideological Purity

Wrapped in the FlagLater that evening, a big crowd turned out for the meeting, more than usual. Over the last months, Birch attendance had bounced back, and, judging from the crowd in the living room, the looming threat of socialized medicine was enough to pack the place. I took coats, passed coffee, and handed out materials. When everyone had settled, Mother led the Pledge and then announced, “We’ll get right to it.”

She dropped a 33 rpm record on the stereo. “For those of you new to the cause, this is a recording done over a year ago,” she explained. “It outlines perfectly the danger of the new push to force government health care on the elderly. Listen carefully and then we’ll discuss the issue fully.”

In a few seconds, the voice of a rising right-wing star — the dashing, engaging, and charming Ronald Reagan — filled the room. I’d heard this record, Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine, several times before, so I already knew his main point: Americans would never vote for socialism directly, but we could be taken in by things labeled liberalism.

One of those bad liberal things was the current push to impose “statism” through medicine. Americans could fall for this plot because medicine seemed so “humanitarian,” but Reagan knew better. Medical coverage for old people would be the “foot in the door” to socialized medicine.

Real Americans had to wake up and stop this abridgment of freedom. If we didn’t fight hard enough, in sad days to come, old people would sit around and tell their children what it was like in the good old days when “men were free.”

As Reagan’s voice faded, several Birchers clapped enthusiastically.

Mother picked up on Reagan’s themes with additional information on the perils of government health care. “The elderly in America are just fine under the current system,” she explained. “Government health care is unnecessary, expensive, and anti-American. It costs too much and threatens our freedom.”

While the arguments against government-run health care continued, my mind drifted to a story my friend Bob had told me. When he was a toddler, his father took him to a big hospital in the city to visit one of his relatives. The little boy held his father’s hand tight as they walked a long, noisy, crowded corridor. “In here, son,” Mr Besse said. “This is Aunt Maude’s ward.”

Bob gripped his father’s hand tighter. “I don’t like it here,” he said.

“I know. But we have to stay awhile. She’s old and sick. We’re all she’s got. Everyone else is in Sterling, where she used to live. You know, with Grandpa Besse.”

“Send her back there,” little Bob said.

“We can’t,” his dad explained. “This is the only place for her.”

Mr Besse led his son along a row of hospital beds. They stopped in front of a shrunken old lady curled on her side. She never moved or spoke, just moaned. After a few minutes, Mr Besse leaned over, kissed Aunt Maude on the cheek, and turned toward the doorway.

“To this day, I remember the smell and the moaning,” Bob had told me. “Those poor people languished there until they died. Without money, charity wards were their only option.”

I looked at the folks in the living room and assumed that none of them would die in the charity ward of Cook County General Hospital. Hating government-run health care was easy when your doctor made house calls and your hospital stays were in private rooms.

—Claire Conner
Wrapped in the Flag: a Personal History of America’s Radical Right

The Human Bible Ends Before it Dies

The Human BibleAccording to the website, Robert M Price is shutting down his podcast The Human Bible. It claims that this most recent episode (posted yesterday) is the penultimate one. I’m not a bit surprise. In the early days, Price was a lot of fun. But it’s been clear for a while that he is just going through the motions. But if I had to guess, I’d say the causation is indirect. I’ll bet they are shutting it down because fewer people are listening to it, and that’s because the show has gotten boring.

I have a special interest in listening to the show, however. You see, Price is a conservative — and not a very smart one either. I’ve written about this a number of times, most recently in, More Robert Price Islamophobia. In that one, I noted that a comment I made complaining about Price’s repeating of a ring-wing radio Obamacare canard got ten “thumbs up” from other listeners. So apparently, I’m not the only one to notice these things. But I suspect that I’m alone in looking forward to them. And in the most recent, Episode 35, Price delivered a whopper!

He started talking about economic redistribution. He claimed that in the time of the Bible, economics really was a zero-sum game: that the poor were poor because the rich were rich. Actually, that’s not true. Even Neolithic towns saw booms and busts. They didn’t see their GDP as constant. Some years there was more food, some years there was less. Certainly it is true at that time and much later at the time of the Bible, the economy was less dynamic than it is now. But it was not distinctly different from what it is today.

Price used this fact to argue (or rather state without evidence) that today, since we know that economics is not a zero-sum game, redistribution is wrong. So the argument he is making is that redistribution made sense as long as we thought that the economy was a fixed size. But now that we know it isn’t, redistribution doesn’t make sense. This is an amazingly bad straw man argument. No one makes this argument for redistribution. I don’t know of anyone ever making this argument for redistribution.

Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes both understood economics very well. They both understood the way that money flows and that the economy is not static. Yet both men believed in redistribution. Back in 1797, Thomas Paine laid out the case for redistribution: the government enforcement of property rights means that many people end up living worse lives than they would if they were born into a tribal culture. So the rich, who benefit excessively from the enforcement of property rights, owe something to the poor who lose out.

Since I’m a generalist, who despite my doctorate really doesn’t know a lot about anything but has a reasonable understand of everything, I don’t get people like Robert M Price. How can he be so brilliant in discussing religion (And H P Lovecraft!) but just follow along with lazy political ideas he’s heard? This is, interestingly, what atheists (like Price) always complain about theists: they just believe what they’ve heard without thinking about it. It is part of what I’ve written about before: the link between libertarianism and atheism.

Increasingly, I believe that the atheist community has fallen under the spell of Nietzsche. If God is dead, they make their own gods out of humans. And what humans? Well, the “super men” of course! They can’t be limited. And the “super men” are, of course, the rich. And so we must keep taxes low on the rich. This is Ayn Rand 101. It also is a complete misapplication of evolution theory. Being smart, strong, and hard working are all things that can make a species successful. It says nothing of individuals of the species. The smartest, strongest, and hardest working individual might simply be eaten by a shark through simple bad luck.

The end of The Human Bible comes at a very good time for me. I’m more and more unhappy with the atheist community. It isn’t just that they are often dimwitted and simplistic; it is also that they are so arrogant. I used to think that people were unfair when they said that atheists were just the mirror image of religious fundamentalists, but I really don’t anymore. Both groups make me wish that there were a god who punished people for hubris. But I’m more forgiving of the religious fundamentalists: they have the excuse of generally being stupid and indoctrinated when they were too young to fight against it. Atheists have no such excuses.

So Robert M Price can go on his merry being very rational and exacting in his biblical criticism. But he continues on with his faith-based politics, throwing out straw man arguments that should embarrass him with a second’s reflection. He is just another example of an atheist movement that has nothing to add to society. It’s just another tribe, blinded by its own interests, and convinced that it is superior because on a single issue it thinks slightly more clearly than other tribes.


Let me be clear: I’m not talking about all atheists. In fact, I think that most atheists aren’t like this. But the most vocal ones are. Most recently, we had Bill Maher and Sam Harris. But this group will never have a big following, because the politics of these people turn out to be remarkably similar to the politics of the Christian fundamentalists. It is like how the communists and the fascist hated each other, even though both groups ended up creating the same kind of governments. For what does it profit a man to gain the truth about a tiny aspect of life and forfeit the betterment of mankind? What does atheism profit a man when it changes the world not at all?

Walmart Continues to Bleed the Government

Sarah KliffThe generally brilliant Sarah Kliff wrote one of those Vox “too cool for school” articles, Tens of Thousands of Walmart Workers Are About to Lose Their Health Insurance — and it’s Good News! This is what you get when you let Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias spend too much time together. It’s got the Wonk Blog nerd factor with the counter-intuitiveness of a #SlatePitch: “What’s the giraffe’s most distinctive feature? Hint: It’s not the neck!” I just want to line up the whole Vox staff and slap them.

Here’s the thing. It actually isn’t counter-intuitive. When I heard that Walmart was going to drop their part-time employee’s insurance, I immediately understood. These people make so little money that they will certainly qualify for generous government subsidies under Obamacare. Of course, if the employee makes below 133% of the poverty rate, he will qualify for the Medicaid expansion. I don’t know what that means in the red states where ideological purity and “sending a message” mean more than helping the working poor. Regardless, I saw immediately that, at least in the long run (after all the red states get over their political hissy fits), that this is a good thing for the employees.

But this is not the main story. This is yet another story of how Walmart uses the government so it can bring its customers low-low prices while keeping the Walton family super-super rich. Kliff provides an example in her article that shows that a part-time employee getting insurance from Walmart would have to pay $111 per month through the company, but only $7 through the government. Well, I’m glad for that employee. But the broader story here is that Walmart treats its workers like dirt.

Consider food stamps. It is really great that Walmart employees can get food stamps to make ends meet. But let’s suppose that Walmart paid all their employees $17 per hour and so they didn’t qualify for food stamps. And then one day, Walmart announced that it was cutting all wages to $10 per hour and now the employees would qualify for food stamps and other forms of government aid. Would Vox publish a story, “Tens of Thousands of Walmart Workers Are About to Get Their Pay Cut — and it’s Good News!” No, they wouldn’t.

Walmart Food Stamp Scam

Even if the government made up every penny that Walmart cut, the story would be that Walmart was using government programs that help the poor in order to enrich its owners. And that is all that is going on here. The only difference is that in this case, it actually is good news for Walmart employees, but only because Walmart already treats them so badly. But notice that when Trader Joe’s did the same thing, it provided money to pay for what they expected their part-time employees would have to pay. Walmart could have taken the money that they now provide for insurance coverage for part-time employees and divide it up to help pay for their share of Obamacare. But they aren’t doing it. Instead, they are just ripping off the government and taking the windfall.

In her defense, Kliff understands this. She noted, “The loser in the Walmart decision is the federal budget.” But it is an afterthought. She spends a total of one sentence on this fact, “It’s shifting costs over to the government, which will now take on the financial burden of helping to pay for thousands’ of part-time workers’ medical bills.” And there is no mention of how else it might have been dealt with.

Conservatives should hate Walmart. All the money that goes to their poor workers is actually money that is taken directly from the government and given to the Walton family — the richest family in the United States. But when even liberals can’t seem to focus on this fact, it doesn’t speak well for future reform.

See Also: I Was a Middle Class Food Stamp Kid

Sad and Brilliant Life of Simeon Solomon

Simeon SolomonOn this day in 1840, the great British artist Simeon Solomon was born. His father was a prominent manufacturer in London and his mother was an artist. This probably explains why his older brother Abraham and older sister Rebecca were also painters — both exceptionally gifted.

Simeon Solomon was the most interesting of the children. His work is highly symbolic, which is remarkable given that it came out of Victorian England. Looking at his work, it is easy to mistake it for work done well into the twentieth century. I think of him as kind of a combination of Gustav Klimt and Edvard Munch and especially Fernand Khnopff. But there’s more. It is hard not to see Salvador Dalí in his 1884 chalk on paper, Head of Medusa:

Head of Medusa

But Solomon is better known for work like his 1870 The Sleepers, and the One That Watcheth. I don’t know quite what to make of it, which is generally what I feel about his work and why I think it is so wonderful:

The Sleepers, and the One That Watcheth

One thing that comes across rather clearly in this painting is Solomon’s homosexuality. For this “crime” he was twice jailed. And he seems to have spent the last twenty years of his life in a workhouse. He continued to work, however. In fact, he produced great work, but much more pencil and pastel — much less watercolor, which seems to have been his preferred medium. Still, it is a sad way to treat a man who gave so much to the world.

Happy birthday Simeon Solomon!