Finally: Evidence That Merit Pay For Teachers Can Work (But It’s Not Very Nice)

After Gov. Dennis Daugaard announced his plan to use merit pay for teachers earlier this year, I and many others in the state expressed a lot of skepticism.

The evidence that merit pay works to improve student outcomes just isn’t there.

Well, Jordan Weissmann at The Atlantic wrote a story today about some researchers who found that merit pay can work if you threaten teachers with loss instead of gain. I’ll let him explain:

Thanks to education reformers such as former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, many of us are now familiar with the idea of merit pay — the notion that teachers’ earnings should be tied to their students’ success. Unions have pushed back hard against the idea. In terms of public policy, it often translates into handing out year-end bonuses to instructors who get the best results, with the hope that the promise of a larger paycheck will motivate them to work harder when they’re up in front of the chalkboard.

But Levitt, Fryer and Co. argue that there’s a serious problem with merit pay. So far, they say, there’s been scant evidence that it actually works. Studies of teacher incentive programs in Tennessee and New York City failed to find any signs that they improved student learning. In the New York experiment, which Harvard’s Fryer conducted, the impact may have even been detrimental.

Enter loss aversion. The authors theorized that instead of offering a lump-sum bonus to teachers come summertime, it might be more effective to give instructors money upfront, then warn them that they would have to pay it back if their students didn’t hit the proper benchmarks. Rather than tap into teachers’ ambition, they’d tap into their anxiety.

To test their idea, the authors designed an experiment for the 2010-2011 school year involving 150 K-8 teachers from Chicago Heights, a low-income community in Illinois. The instructors were randomly assigned to a control group or one of two main bunches, which I’ll shorthand as the “winners” and the “losers.” The winners agreed to work under a traditional year-end bonus structure, where they could make up to $8,000 extra based on their students’ standardized test scores. The losers were given $4,000 off the bat and informed that if their students’ turned in below-average results, they’d have to pay a portion of it back commensurate with just how poor their scores were. On the flip side, an above-average performance could earn them additional bonus money, up to the full $8,000.

The authors then divided the winners and losers again so that some teachers would be rewarded based on their results as a group, and others would be rewarded based on their results as individuals.

Come vacation time, the losers had won. In math, paying teachers a year-end bonus had no statistically significant effect. When teachers had money to lose, though, their students over performed. The impact was large — the equivalent of improving a teacher’s skills by one full standard deviation — and the pattern held whether teachers were compensated as a group or as individuals. The authors’ data on reading scores turned out to be shakier, since most students ultimately had more than one instructor working with them on language skills, but it indicated a similar trend.

In short, they found that merit pay can work. You just have to be tricky, and a little bit mean, with how you implement it.

Read the entire article here.

As Weissmann indicates, this doesn’t seem like a very humane way to treat employees. To me, it sounds more like how you would try to influence a child.

But if you want evidence that merit pay works, I guess you just may have it.

The Final Showdown: Jesus Vs. Satan

Why am I not surprised that the final showdown between Jesus and Satan is happening in Florida?

A man claiming to be Jesus Christ in Palm Bay, Florida, has been charged with aggravated stalking and aggravated assault for allegedly attacking his neighbor, according to Click Orlando.

Kenneth David Peterson, 51, allegedly told his neighbor Fred Padilla he was attacking him because he was the Antichrist. Peterson attacked his car with a tire iron in February and has now begun regularly shooting at him with a BB gun, Padilla said.

Read the story and watch the television news report here. The suspect even appears to be angling at a classical Jesus appearance with his long hair and beard.

Let’s hope “Jesus” gets the mental health assistance he almost surely needs.

That, or Jesus is preaching a very different message these days.

Poverty – Who Is To Blame?

I wrote a column in the Press & Dakotan today. I present it here for your consideration:


Poor Americans are not Americans at all.

In fact, they are traitors to America.

With their laziness, they betray our hard-working ideals. The only hand they will lift is the one used to greedily snatch up hand-outs and entitlements.

Their poverty is their personal failure. It is their choice. It is their self-imposed sentence to persecution, ridicule and shame.

And we should waste no time in making sure that sentence is fulfilled.


If that sounds cold-hearted, it’s because it is. Yet I hear sentiments like these in conversations and on the nation’s airwaves regularly.

They usually come dressed up in more colorful attire, but strip away the artifice and you find these beliefs staring back at you.

The United States is a country that has conceded the war on poverty. Instead, a far too large portion of its citizens gets a certain satisfaction out of waging a war upon the poor because its members cannot conceive that they could ever be one of “those people.” Therefore, “those people” deserve nothing but suspicion and contempt — except when the their “superiors” want to feel charitable.

While contemplating the English attitude toward the poor, Suzanne Moore wrote in The Guardian UK: “(There is a belief that) poverty is not a sign of collective failure but individual immorality. The psychic coup of neo-liberal thinking is just this: instead of being disgusted by poverty, we are disgusted by poor people themselves. This disgust is a growth industry. We lay this moral bankruptcy at the feet of the poor as we tell ourselves we are better than that.”

As the economy continues to falter and more Americans find themselves falling down the ladder, many cling to that disgust and try ever harder to trample those below them. We fight amongst ourselves for the scraps in an increasingly low-wage wasteland where many hard-working Americans are one health problem away from economic calamity.

But we are social creatures, forever comparing ourselves to one another. It’s a comfort to be able to look down: “I may be falling, but at least I’m not the trash on the bottom rung.” Dare to suggest a rope be thrown to those below and watch the knives come out. Instead of working together, we work against one another.

All of this reflects a poverty of ideas in this country and, more importantly, a poverty of the soul.

It is a refusal to recognize that we live in an economic system that is a game of chance. Increasingly, the family to which you were born will determine the economic outcome of your life. If you want to improve your chances of living the “American Dream” and climbing the economic ladder, studies have demonstrated you have a better chance of accomplishing it in Europe, where there are economic safety nets and more equal educational opportunities.

As much as we would like to believe that hard work, talent or a combination of the two will lead to a steady, livable income, that is not reality. Sometimes, the system and chance conspire to spit people out at random and send them spiraling to a place that they, too, never thought they would go.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota last year published the findings of a study titled, “Entrepreneurs, chance and the deterministic concentration of wealth.” In their simulation, it was found that even when all investors are given an equal chance of success, wealth concentrates into the hands of a few over time.

Unless government action is taken to counteract this consolidation of wealth, the researchers concluded, the economy becomes more and more dependent on the lucky few and lacks the ability to be resilient.

Sound familiar?

You see, the capitalist system ensures there will be winners and losers. With income and wealth inequality increasing, it means there will be a few big winners and far more losers. The space between the top and bottom rungs is shrinking so that you are either on the top or the bottom. Forget the middle ground.

Some find comfort in the knowledge that there is a welfare system and charities, religious and otherwise, that provide support to those who find themselves homeless or in other dire straits.

It is not nearly enough.

Look at the numbers: 46.2 million Americans were living in poverty in 2010. That was the largest number of Americans living in poverty in the 52 years since such estimates have been published by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But hey, some of these “poor” people have telephones and refrigerators. Some even have the “luxury” of living in a functioning vehicle.

Are they really poor?

This is the condescending debate some would prefer to have rather than addressing the role educational opportunity, low wages and lack of a well-planned safety net that allows people to get back on their feet contributes to the large-scale poverty we allow in this country.

We do not have 46.2 million individual failures; we have a failure of society.

The Fables In Our Hearts Awaken

The fables in our hearts awaken.
We jump into painted panels and watch our words float in the air above.
The clock stops and listens, encouraging our escape.
This is where I want to spend my time with you — in a place where the end is never really the end.

I’ll be a boy with a dragon. You’ll place Saturn’s ring on my finger.
We can find the farmer who did us wrong.
We’ll light up his cows like torches in the night.
They’ll run like balls of fire in these fields of dreams until they are extinguished by daylight.

We’re not all bad, but we have our moments.
When there is a star that exists just for you, it’s hard not to grow heated now and again.
Youth doesn’t rest on its elbows. It builds myths out of dirt and laughter.
And here I am building them with you, casting spells to keep demons in the shadows.

We move so fast the colors bleed.
The dragon melts and Saturn’s ring is shrinking.
A familiar voice calls our names again. We try to ignore it, but it’s not working.
I’ll see you back here when the clock strikes one. We’ll try, try again to make time stop ticking.

Fiery Pianos And Homecoming Queens: Sparklehorse Remembered

As I explored some dusty corners of my music library last week, I came across a band I haven’t listened to much in recent years.
That band was Sparklehorse.
Although the name may conjure up images of childhood and levity, Sparklehorse sounds nothing like that.
The band’s usually murky sound is almost always paired with foreboding and dream-like lyrics like “my crooked spine becoming more brittle/what once grew straight and tall t’ward the sun/absorbing back down to dirt like a sponge” and “fiery pianos wash up on a foggy coast.”
The song that really pounded at my heart last week was “Maria’s Little Elbows.” I haven’t been able to shake it.
I spent a lot of time with the album “Good Morning Spider” when it was released in 1998, but I had somehow forgotten “Maria’s Little Elbows.”
Here it is:

well I’ll bet my Maria’s got an elbow full of lonely
now here’s a little prayer so that she might get some sleep
don’t let her face be skinned by the sun today
don’t let it in when it comes knocking at your door

oh oh

sometimes you feel you’ve got the emptiest arms in the whole world
try to make sense but it always comes out absurd
sleeping horses keep eating up your flowers
don’t let ’em in when it comes kicking at your door

came kicking at my door

she said ‘I’ve really come to hate my body
and all the things that it requires in this world’
I bet you’re out there getting drunk with all your friends
and it’ll get you in the bathroom of a Texaco

came kicking at my door

Sadly, Mark Linkous, the man who was Sparklehorse, shot himself in the heart March 6, 2010, at the age of 47.
At the time of his death, I listened to a few of my favorite Sparklehorse songs. It wasn’t until going through his albums this week, however, that I really remembered how much I enjoyed his music and what made it so special. It’s really made me mourn the loss of Linkous.
I didn’t know a better way to express my sadness than by sharing his music.

In The Year 2032: Neb., S.D. Will Be Among The Best States To Live?

That is what the Gallup Business Journal is projecting. I hope they’re right, as there is a good chance I’ll still be in this neck of the world. Ask me in 20 years if I agree.

The best — and worst — places to live in 2032

To see into the future, Gallup examined 13 forward-looking metrics encompassing economic, workplace, and community factors as well as personal choices that might predict future livability. (For details on these metrics, see the sidebar “How Gallup Computed the Rankings” at the end of this article.)

The West North Central region, which includes Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, is the region poised for the brightest future. Workers in this area are most likely to be employed full time for an employer in the type of good jobs associated with high GDP. Residents have the highest economic confidence in the nation, setting the region up for a strong economic future. They are also the most likely to report easy access to clean, safe water, meaning that this region is best positioned to address one of the critical resource challenges of the future.

The Mountain region, which includes Montana, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico, comes in second, buoyed by the lowest obesity rate in the nation and the most widespread access to safe places to exercise. The Pacific region, comprised of California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska, comes in a close third, with the lowest smoking rate in the nation, quality workplace relationships, and the highest percentage of residents who say they learn new and interesting things daily.

The combination of strong economics, good health, and vibrant communities positions the West North Central, Mountain, and Pacific regions for a bright future. For other areas of the U.S., though, the future is not so bright. The East South Central region, which includes Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, trails on several critical metrics and performed worst overall of the nine regions. People in this region are the least likely to be employed in good jobs or to learn new and interesting things daily, and they have the lowest economic confidence. They are also the most likely nationwide to be obese, to smoke, and to lack a safe place to exercise. That’s a killer combination, and it won’t help this area build the productive, healthy society of the future.

Read the entire report here.