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October 17, 2007

Merit Pay For Journalists

I think Jason Zengerle's response to me on merit pay in journalism sort of proves the point. "I think merit pay is the norm," he says. "Not necessarily in the sense that there are predetermined, hard-and-fast metrics assessing performance (although I do think web traffic numbers probably play that role at some publications) but in the sense that good writing and reporting--or at least what the bosses consider good writing and reporting--tend to get factored into what you get paid."

According to the Department of Labor, "Merit pay, also known as pay-for-performance, is defined as a raise in pay based on a set of criteria set by the employer." That fits the definition used in discussions of education, where merit pay is tied to student improvement, test scores, etc. It doesn't fit a situation in which "my editor likes me" results in a fuzzy and undefined increase. What're the criteria? Agreement with said editor? Fun writing? Personal relationships? Good ideas around the editorial table?

Which gets us right back to the argument about merit pay -- a policy, again, that I favor. If you wanted to replicate the way journalism works, you'd just let principals decide how much to pay teachers. Moreover, pay within an organization is indeed based largely on experience -- you get paid more as you sit there for longer. If you want a radical boost, you jump ship to a richer magazine, or a sexier subject. Similarly, teachers get paid more as they sit around longer, and can change schools to a richer district, or a private institution (which would be, in journalism, like leaving political writing) if they want a larger bump. Many, in fact, do exactly that. It's a real problem for urban schools, just as it is for non-profit magazines.

I think merit pay, in fact, would be a good thing for journalists, if you could figure out some decent criteria. The profession is full of deadweight, and every magazine has folks pulling paychecks and not turning out a proportionate amount of work. But it's not something we currently have. It's not how I get paid, and it's not how Jason gets paid, and it's not, in any primary sense, how the many people I know at The Atlantic get paid. And we all think that's okay because, deep down, none of us really believe that we should get paid per eyeball (economics reporting is important!), paid to be provocative (but what if the truth isn't counterintuitive), or paid to be experts (then why not hire academics?). The tenuous compromise is that we're paid through some undefined mixture of our editors liking our work and our office presence, the time we've been at the magazine, our age, and so forth. It works out okay. But it ain't merit pay.

October 17, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

The only alternative to merit pay that I know of is to have it based on some other criteria like years of experience and education. Can you demonstrate that journalists are payed systematically this way?

I'm pretty sure the answer is no.

Posted by: Mark | Oct 17, 2007 3:33:36 PM

Ezra, you've said multiple times now that you support merit pay. At the same time, you've said this would be enormously complicated to actually implement, and that it's hard to imagine what metrics would be fair or reasonable to use to judge a teacher's pay. So what are those metrics you'd use? How would you implement it? I don't see how you can say you support this policy if you can't describe what such a policy would look like. You have to either put up or shut up on this one.

Posted by: Christmas | Oct 17, 2007 3:34:12 PM

Forget merit pay. Can we at least have merit hiring?

Posted by: George Tenet Fangirl | Oct 17, 2007 3:43:42 PM

For journalists, merit pay could be based on whether your actually doing journalism.

This, for instance, gets you a handsome sum, reflecting the fact that you talked to 9 different people, traveled extensively, and put thought into combining the facts you acquired with history, context and analysis.

This gets you $1.50.

Posted by: SDM | Oct 17, 2007 3:44:01 PM

Mark: Merit requires a formula, or some way of judging merit. There's no formula for journalists -- you just get paid what you can negotiate.

Christmas: I'm not an education policy expert. I imagine there are ways to construct merit pay (easy things, like more money for teaching in urban districts, should already be implemented), and if policy experts can come up with good ones, I, in theory, support tying pay to performance incentives. But I don't have all the answers, which is why I qualify my language here.

Posted by: Ezra | Oct 17, 2007 3:44:03 PM

Ezra,

Perhaps you should read the whole definition, continueing from where you left off: "This usually involves the employer conducting a review meeting with the employee to discuss the employee's work performance during a certain time period. Merit pay is a matter between an employer and an employee (or the employee's representative)."

Merit pay does not equal 'pay only generated by impartial staticis', although merit pay can be calculated that way. Your bosses impression of you work, and indeed your office pressence can certainly be factors in merit pay, even if they are subjective. Most employers have at least some subjective components in how they determine pay, that doesn't make it not 'merit based' it just changes how merit is determined.

If you have a job where your employers cannot change your pay scale, based upon either staticiscal or subjective performance criteria then your pay is not merit based. For example, if every employee gets a set wage determined by years employed.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Oct 17, 2007 3:47:51 PM

"Set criteria." That's what the employer-employee meeting needs to include for it to merit pay. That's what we don't have. Teachers and principals have employer-employee meetings every year, but they're not getting merit pay.

Posted by: Ezra | Oct 17, 2007 3:50:41 PM

"Set criteria." That's what the employer-employee meeting needs to include for it to merit pay. That's what we don't have. Teachers and principals have employer-employee meetings every year, but they're not getting merit pay.

Too strict a definition. Give the principal the same instructions you would give the boss in private sector. You have x dollars available for salary increases at your school. Everyone needs a base cost-of-living increase of y, but otherwise, divide the dollars as you see fit based on your assessment of teacher performance.

Posted by: wisewon | Oct 17, 2007 3:56:16 PM

"every magazine has folks pulling paychecks and not turning out a proportionate amount of work."

Ezra, which writers at The American Prospect are pulling paychecks and not turning out a proportionate amount of work? I ask this as a subscriber, by the way.

Posted by: JoshA | Oct 17, 2007 4:29:01 PM

Ezra, I've been merit paid my entire life and yea, usually (though not always) there is a formula. But the formula is rarely based on pure metrics, it is things like "Commitment" and "Leadership" being given a score from 1 to 5, with 3 and 4 the only numbers ever actually used. In previous jobs it wasn't even that.

Basically, I think you have a very academic, inaccurate view of what merit pay really is. Based on you definition, even professional sports players don't get merit pay. Your view is far, far too narrow.

Wisewon does a good job of explaining what merit pay would really look like. Of course, the principal would have a guideline or set of rules to follow to determine what is used as merit, but it would look more like what I described above than anything nearly as concrete as you are assuming.

Posted by: Mark | Oct 17, 2007 4:31:13 PM

I think one problem is that the principals don't have a very good way of determining a teacher's merit. There's a much higher ratio of teachers:principal than there is employee:boss in most corporations, for one thing. Principals may see a teacher teach a class once or twice a year, if that. I can't recall our principal or any other administrator ever sitting in on one of my classes in high school.

Not to be snarky, but somehow I doubt that most people in favor of merit pay for teachers are also in favor of creating a whole new level of middle management in public schools. Also, I'll take the competence and work ethic of teachers over administrators (read: ex-coaches) any day of the week.

Posted by: mark (lowercase) | Oct 17, 2007 4:45:57 PM

I'd agree with Mark and Wisewon - As someone who's worked in HR and seen the salary planning process, "merit" is often the definition for the subjective elements that can add amounts for Leadership, skillset, commitment to the organization, and the like. I would bet that many major news organizations have some merit based system in place, or at least use some merit elements in rewarding certain employees. Moreover, as I said earlier, given the Gawker example, a structure that was based on measurable web traffic wouldn't be hard to implement and would account for those writers whose work brings in audience; would that reward system be rewarding the wrong things? Not easy to say; but I think you're talking out of both sides of your mouth to say you like the idea of merit pay, except for you or your industry. I have my issues with merit pay (especially seeing the subjectiveness of salary planning), but I still think it has an important role - one that, I think, is one of those base tests of just how much you favor capitalism, and which, really, I rather do.

Posted by: weboy | Oct 17, 2007 4:50:57 PM

> Too strict a definition. Give the principal the same
> instructions you would give the boss in private sector.
> You have x dollars available for salary increases at
> your school. Everyone needs a base cost-of-living
> increase of y, but otherwise, divide the dollars as you
> see fit based on your assessment of teacher
> performance.

And of course, the utter rage at the subjective, political, and vindictive use that principals made of that power from 1929-1965 is what led teachers to form/rebuild their unions and start fighting in the first place. Note that designers, CAD operators, and even low-level engineers in the aerospace industry are also unionized and for much the same reason: they have detailed and hard-won technical skills and make direct contributions to the corporations' operations, but pre-union they were being evaluated and paid based on their brownnosing skills or lack thereof.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Oct 17, 2007 4:59:05 PM

I have to say I find the ringing defense by the commenters here of a system that rewards David Broder, Joel Klein, Jonah Goldberg, Richard Cohen and Any Sullivan heartwarming.

What I take Ezra's point to be is that there is a great deal of hypocrisy in the pundit push for 'merit pay' for teachers, which is quite true. They angrily shake their tiny fists at even the non-financial accountablity foisted on them by criticism from the unwashed blogosphere.

I go further that, though I think it's a theoretically a worthy goal in education, the devil is quite squarely in the details. There are all kinds of 'merit' proposals one could imagine that would make the education system worse, and many that may make it marginally better. But, far beyond any substantive effect on education reflexively supporting 'merit' is seen as a domestic badge of 'seriousness.'

Posted by: AJ | Oct 17, 2007 5:03:44 PM

And of course, the utter rage at the subjective, political, and vindictive use that principals made of that power from 1929-1965 is what led teachers to form/rebuild their unions and start fighting in the first place. Note that designers, CAD operators, and even low-level engineers in the aerospace industry are also unionized and for much the same reason: they have detailed and hard-won technical skills and make direct contributions to the corporations' operations, but pre-union they were being evaluated and paid based on their brownnosing skills or lack thereof.

Yep. There are ways around this, but without good checks and balances in place the whole thing would be a mess. The good news is we do know how to put in those kinds of checks and balances.

I know I've been down on Ezra on this thread, but of that is my own cynicism creeping in to counter-point Ezra's idealism. You simply can't get away from subjective opinion of merit without going to something artificial and basically worse.

You probably do need a layer of management where some teachers are master teachers that others report to. Evaluations would be done by master teachers with peer reviews included. The principal would need to approve the evaluations and would evaluate the master teachers himself, including peer and other reviews. Someone at the district level would need to approve those reviews and review the principals. That would be the good corporate model.

As you can see, merit pay would be more than just a new pay scale, it would require a fundamental change in how schools are organized and how teachers operate. That could be a good thing.

Personally, I hate review period, hate writing self reviews and hated writing reviews for those that reported to me back when I was in that position. The whole endeavor sucks. But it is better than the alternatives.

Posted by: Mark | Oct 17, 2007 5:17:01 PM

"Merit pay", for the purposes of talking about teachers, is a set of testable and tested metrics that determine pay. It doesn't have the plain English meaning of "pay somehow linked to one's merit".

Few professions have merit pay. Lawyers don't. Doctors don't. Pro baseball players probably come the closest, since so many decisions are statistical. Lawyers in private firms are also close, since one's pay is usually linked closely to how much business one brought in for the firm. In all professions, one's pay is at least vaguely linked to merit (unless one's father runs the company), but none of them are "merit pay".

Mainly "merit pay" as used by the conservative hot-air sphere, is just a code word for "get rid of teachers' unions since they tend to donate to Democrats". You know that (Ezra), right? Same reason they hate trial lawyers? And unions in general? The push for merit pay has nothing - nothing - to do with actually caring about educational quality. It is, as they say, a ruse. If you're even talking about "merit pay" as some sort of caring-about-education measure, you've been completely taken in.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 17, 2007 5:21:35 PM

Democratic candidates who mouth sentiments favorable to "merit pay" for public school teachers, while angering possibly their single most loyal constituency (but not being specific enough to actually lose support), are searching for that elusive "Sista Soulja" moment for demonstrating their "centrist" cred.

The only problem is they give the subject credence it doesn't deserve. Where are the empirical studies demonstrating that problems with the educational system can be attributed to inadequacy of the incentive system for teachers used by every one of thousands of public school districts in the country for the last umpteen hundred years? Rest assured there are no such studies that perform this critical function. This is placing the burden of proof where it belongs, instead of making a leap of faith that adopting something that sounds good during those brain-dead moments we all have will somehow magically result in better teaching. Until we get such an empirical study that's legitimate -- if it comes from the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation it doesn't count -- we should be spared from this point forward from wasting our time over this ridiculous subject. Liberals, too, should start refusing to take the bait, thinking they have to argue against merit pay because it just sounds so good.

Posted by: urban legend | Oct 17, 2007 5:38:47 PM

"Merit pay", for the purposes of talking about teachers, is a set of testable and tested metrics that determine pay.

I think I disagree with this, but if you are correct I'm against merit pay for teachers or basically anyone else. What pure testable metrics are the "something artificial and basically worse" I mentioned above. I have zero confidence that such metrics can be found or implemented.

But I think this pushes the term to the furthest edge of definition. This tends to make me believe that this definition is used as a strawman to stop all discussion on what real merit pay could actually look like.

Posted by: Mark | Oct 17, 2007 5:52:17 PM

I agree that there's a lot of ways to structure merit pay for teachers; and contra Ezra, I may be in favor of merit pay as a concept, but I'm not sure I've seen a good merit pay proposal yet for schoolteachers. Still, at the university level, we have a number of merit structures, which would seem like a starting point - you could reward teacher training, skills building, service... any number of things, and not just test scores. The wrinkle, I think has to do with the governmental role in public schools, which is probably too rigid for the flexibility that merit may really needs to be effective. Nevertheless, Ezra's objection was around journalism as an analagous example, and that's just wrong.

Posted by: weboy | Oct 17, 2007 6:07:02 PM

- Most of the studies of "performance related pay" or "merit pay" in the real world are... inconclusive about it's value for the firm in terms of productivity, engagement or profitability. There's a bunch of Austrian-school economists who like to push PRP as being highly effective and backed by the evidence, but since their definition of evidence is "studies by other Austrian-school economists" it's probably wise to take their views with a pinch of salt, since (for example) academics in the organisational studies field are also reasonably competent and have done a far more wide ranging set of studies... So, the idea of "merit pay" is one of those laughable panaceas. Yes, everyone and his dog in private industry uses it. No, there's no evidence to say it's working.

- Why? Because the devil is in the details and while Mark (for example) is happy to invoke an extra set of management to administer merit pay in schools that is not what most are proposing, they just want to make the principal the head of a small business, because they're convinced that automagically improves things.

- Most of the "broader systems" invoked by people like wisewon here are utterly dependent on the quality of the manager running the review. Again, the evidence is that this turns out the way you'd expect... extremely variably. There is no reason to believe that you can attract above average managers into running US schools and so, we should be cautious about the improvements that we expect.

- Most of these proposed incentive effects rely on a decent sized pool of labour to create extra turnover and competition. It's not at all clear that there's enough money in the system as a whole to create the kind of top end salaries that would bring more good people into teaching. As such, while it may have the ring of justice that good teachers are paid well and poor ones paid badly it may not do much more than rearrange the location of various good teachers. (Which may in itself be good, but that need proving.)

Posted by: Meh | Oct 17, 2007 6:12:01 PM

I'm completely flummoxed why you'd want to do this for journalists. Journalists have a pretty big pool of consumers for whom they produce. If they're not getting paid what they think they're worth where they're currently working, don't they go somewhere else? If not, what the hell's wrong with them?

Furthermore, I cringe to think what the metrics would be. Words per unit time? Number of trackbacks? How 'bout alignment with the editorial staff's views? Good journalism's kind of like pornography--you know it when you see it. I'm pretty sure the compensation committee knows it, too.

I can kinda understand why you'd have to be more formulaic/mechanistic with teachers. They can hop school districts, but there are only so many in a single geographic location. You've got to be a bit more careful in a semi-monopolistic situation. I think wisewon's pretty much dead-on on the right prescription, though.

Posted by: TheRadicalModerate | Oct 17, 2007 6:17:16 PM

Hey, your dear old Federal government does this everyday and so does the military. Why is it so hard for teachers to do the same thing. Are they too dumb?

Anyone who actually has raised children knows perfectly well you can tell who are the really good teachers and who are collecting a paycheck. In addition, its very easy to account for favoritism etc.

I can think up a system in about two minutes, the government and teachers union haven't been able to think one up for 100 years. And you want our hospitals to run like our schools??

Posted by: Patton | Oct 17, 2007 6:18:54 PM

Appologies to others for feeding a troll, but Patton, I'm curious what this system you've thought up actually is. You say that "you can tell who are the really good teachers" -- what does that mean, in terms of implementation? You, personally, are going to visit every public school classroom in the country and determine teachers' pay? If not, what exactly?

Posted by: JBL | Oct 17, 2007 6:53:42 PM

To paraphrase Ezra, Meh gets the "other commenters are smarter than this commenter" award.

Posted by: Mark | Oct 17, 2007 7:01:18 PM

mark makes an important point. Given the work load of the average principal, the chances for the meaningful evaluation and review are few and the chance that taxpayers would support the expansion of administration that would be necessary to implement proper review is nil. Without addressing the problems with time and resources available for the kind of evaluation that all parties will see as valid, merit pay would be difficult to implement and its validity would be questioned by teachers, administrators, and boards of education alike.

I agree with Mark that I have little faith that a fair and reliable set of metrics can be found. Weboy is correct to note level of education for teacher pay. Teacher training and further education are part of paying teachers in many districts; and while level of education does not always equate to better teaching, on the average, of course better educated teachers are better at what they do. Quality professional development leads to better teaching methods. Weboy is also correct that using test scores would be a horrible idea for determining pay as it would again leave a much smaller pool of candidates for struggling districts.

And Patton, could you "think up" a pony for me while you are done with your two minutes of thought about restructuring the entire system of paying public school teachers?

Posted by: jmack | Oct 17, 2007 7:44:10 PM

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