How to Misrepresent Education Reform In a Few Easy Steps

One reason the debate surrounding education reform is so frustrating is that there’s a tendency for people to take a valid, but small point, and surround it with straw men, half-truths, and unrealistic assumptions until they emerge with a full-fledged argument about a certain policy. Lyndsey Leyton’s Washington Post article about Dan Pink’s opposition to merit pay for teachers is a textbook example of this.

First, Pink’s valid point:

“Rewards are very effective for some things — simple things, mechanical things,” he explains. “But for complicated jobs that require judgment and creativity, the evidence shows that it just doesn’t work very well.” Teaching, of course, is one of those jobs.

The crux of Pink’s opposition to merit pay is logical. Evidence shows that the possibility of a raise won’t magically turn bad teachers into good teachers through increased motivation. Where Pink gets into trouble is when he attempts to respond to a stronger argument for merit pay — that organizations have better recruitment, retention, and overall health when they create a culture of accountability by rewarding those who do well.

Pink begins by saying that “education is not a business.” Though he is technically right, for the purposes of teacher pay schools might as well be a business. Like a high-end consumer product firm (e.g. Apple), the goal of an education system is to deliver a product of the highest quality in a cost-effective way. Pink then delivers a classic fear-mongering line:

Do you want your kids taught by an intensely competitive person who’s motivated by money?

It sounds bad, but if you think about the quote it makes no sense. A person might be motivated by money, but they’ll only get that money if they prove to be a good teacher. So yes, if there is an insanely competitive person motivated by the money they will make from increasing my kid’s test scores two standard deviations beyond the norm, I do want them teaching my kids. Pink’s quote only makes sense in a world where if there is an influx of terrible rookie teachers who think earning merit pay will be easy. As far as I can tell, nobody serious about becoming a teacher thinks that being a good teacher is easy.

I would write all that off as a case of overheated rhetoric, but Pink then says two things that show his views are not grounded in reality. First, he plays the token “I’m not a teacher basher” card.

Pink thinks there’s nothing wrong with paying teachers more. In fact, all teachers should earn more, he said, so they don’t abandon teaching for financial reasons.

Here’s the problem with that statement. At the moment we live in a society where there is a finite amount of money for teacher raises. One thing we could do is pay all teachers more. Alternatively, we could pay the good teachers a lot more and the bad teachers the same or a little more. Those are the only two realistic options. Compared to a merit pay system, paying every teacher more means redistributing money from good teachers to bad teachers. That’s a policy nobody would support.

Pink then closes with another standard talking point.

The national debate over merit pay is a distraction from the challenges faced by the American educational system, Pink said, days after the Rockville event. “Well-intentioned public officials want to do something, and they look at [merit pay] as a silver bullet. The real problem is poverty,” he said.

If politicians want to improve academic performance, they should “reduce teenage pregnancy, give excellent prenatal health care and provide universal preschool — and test scores will go up,” he said. “But that’s a lot harder to do, and a lot more expensive than merit pay.”

I agree! Poverty does have an enormous negative effect on education. But Pink is engaged in a debate about how best to spend money appropriated for education. If Pink thinks state governments should take money earmarked for schools and put it towards prenatal health programs, that’s fine, but considering he wants to give every teacher a raise, I don’t think that’s the case. Instead, he is simply giving advice on what do if a whole bunch of money earmarked for social programs magically appears out of nowhere. Again, he’s not dealing with the real world. Pink also falls into the common trap of effectively saying that teachers are extremely important, but also that teachers don’t matter because poverty is more important. You can’t have it both ways.

Whatever you think about merit pay or any other reform idea, it’s important to talk about it in a real world context that involves real choices. Don’t be Rick Perry promising to cut taxes, leave entitlements alone, increase defense spending, and balance the budget.

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