Merit Pay for Teachers

Q: The District should be able to take things other than seniority into account when deciding which teachers to let go first.   [The context of this is a survey sent to parents by the Pittsburgh school district.  More context is that the State of Pennsylvania is dramatically cutting education funding this year: about 10% of the teachers at our local school are being sacked.  I don’t approve, but that’s another story.]

A: Absolutely the city should be able to pay teachers for performance, and also use performance to decide whom to let go. We should keep the best and brightest teachers, pay them well  and keep them around even if they haven’t been around for a long time. But, it’s easy to do the wrong thing. Measuring teacher performance is an inexact process because so much depends on the children and their parents. In a bad year with a few difficult students, even the best teachers would struggle to accomplish much. In a good year, given a few charismatic kids who want to learn, the class could take off, and even a mediocre teacher could see academic excellence.

Or, the best teacher for the students could be a disaster for the administration.  I remember a teacher just like that.  His name is (was?) Daniel Hoyt, at Hall High School, in West Hartford Connecticut, in the late 1970s.

He filled the back ten feet of his physics classroom (times the full width of the room) with oscilloscopes, signal generators, power supplies, transformers, transistors, partially working electrocardiograph machines. But don’t get the idea of a few treasured tools sitting on school tables.  Think of green metal cabinets, head high, almost walling off the back of the classroom.  These were filled with little things: resistors, capacitors, transistors.  Then the bigger things were stacked on tables and shelves, except that the things that were used daily got a place of honor of their own.  He got most of the stuff used, or surplus, but I can look back and try to estimate, and there must have been tens of thousands of dollars of equipment there.  It was there for kids.

Kids from all over the town would come in after hours to build stuff. He was incredibly dedicated: he practically lived in that room, he spent his own money to buy equipment, and he liked nothing better than helping people build electronics. [Or perhaps lonely.  I can’t remember ever hearing anything about his family.  The school was his life.] He was open for business every weekday, and there were a shifting crowd of a dozen of us at any given moment.  You could go over any day and there would be two or three people there.  It was social, too, a chance to be with other geeks.  We learned a lot; I learned things that I didn’t see again until my junior year at MIT. It wasn’t anything like normal teaching, though.  You could always ask for help, and he’d keep a quarter of an ear on what you were doing, but he never so much as made a suggestion if you didn’t ask.  I’d just come in, say hello, and go dive into the back and start building something.  It was complete freedom.

I had a grand time, and Mr. Hoyt made my career. I learned enough in Mr. Hoyt’s room to stand out in undergraduate research at MIT, which got me into grad school, Bell Labs, Oxford, and Google.

But from an adminstrator’s point of view, he must have been a nightmare, even in the easy-going 1970s. I’d come by at 5pm and throw pebbles at his second-floor window until someone (either Mr. Hoyt or one of his crowd of quasi-students) would hear, come down and let me in. We’d stay until 7 or 8, or 9pm sometimes.  We’d be building things with 500-Volt power supplies with capacitors big enough to kill a horse. We’d be etching copper circuit boards in corrosive Ferric Chloride solutions in the prep room. We learned enough safety and respect not to get hurt, actually, but I know we violated so many circa 2012 safety rules that any school would have no choice but to shut his operation down.

And, he ran a business out of his school room: buying, repairing, and selling electronics. Not for profit. Definitely not for personal profit: his old station wagon was a total rust-bucket. He used the profits to by electronic gear and components for the back of his classroom, for us. No modern school could tolerate that either, and yet he was doing exactly the right thing.

And I think he was by far the best physics teacher around, even during the day. And he spent his evenings teaching kids from other schools and running an academy that has no modern counterpart. And clearly, it was apparent even to us kids, he was breaking every rule in the book, doing the right thing, and getting away with it.

So, I believe in merit pay for teachers, but only if the system would have paid Mr. Hoyt.  Any system that couldn’t appreciate him would be throwing away the best and brightest, and would therefore fail.  A strict seniority system with tenure has at least one advantage: it kept Hoyt.

[I’m not sure I believe this last paragraph entirely.  These days, maker spaces (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) might have provided a place, instead of a classroom.  Maybe he could have done his thing outside of school, without being awkward for a 2012 school administration.  But maker/hacker spaces are rare, and there’s no guarantee that he and his stuff and us kids would have all come together in another place.   Or, perhaps one could argue that teachers like Mr. Hoyt, though valuable, are too rare to matter.  That we need policies to encourage the vast majority of ordinary teachers to become a little better, and Mr. Hoyt would be just an unfortunate loss, outweighed by many small improvements.   Maybe.  Or maybe not.]

[Stepping farther back, I think that this is an example of one of the frequent tragedies of the late 20th century: that by managing the world in the hopes of improving it, we enforce a uniform mediocrity, and we never know about the amazing things that can no longer happen.]