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Mike Miles Brings His Convoluted Merit Pay Scheme to Houston ISD 

Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles’ thesis is that student test scores will go up under a merit pay system for teachers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.  In theory, it has a certain free-market appeal.  Yet teaching and learning are not so simple as that.  Instead, a merit-pay system creates a host of perverse incentives. Mike Miles himself has not yet learned this.  

Now that Miles is coming to Houston ISD, after having served as Dallas ISD for three years previously, it’s garnering a lot of controversy. Many Houston ISD teachers and parents are understandably having some anxiety. The fact that Miles was appointed by the TEA rather than elected also makes the situation unpalatable for many. One can sympathize with this view.  

Miles’ supporters, however, will point to the low test scores in Houston ISD.  That is very well; perhaps Houston ISD students’ academic performance isn’t so hot.  But is there any evidence that Miles can raise those scores?  In my opinion, there isn’t, if we are to base our predictions on the events of the past.    

Miles cites the “achievement gap” as part of the raison d’etre for his agenda.  Yet he’s not the first person to observe the achievement gap between different races of students.  Furthermore, identifying this problem does not somehow justify his methods.  One may say that the achievement gap presents an urgent problem, but it does not follow that Miles has the solution.  It may even be that his system exacerbates the problem. 

The Stupidity of Miles’ Merit Pay System 

The funny thing about rewarding teachers based on their students’ test scores is that it rewards which students you happen to teach more than how you teach them.  If you are not an AP teacher, you teach at a low-income school, you teach a subject such as English where it’s hard to “cram for the test,” you’re out of luck.  If you teach a select group of students, such as high-level math or a STEM charter school, you just might find that you’re now a teacher of excellence–“exemplary.”  This is the stupidity of Miles’ TEI system.  And this is just what happened, according to Dallas Morning News:

“The district’s magnet schools — which have academic entrance requirements or selective admissions criteria — and campuses with few disadvantaged students were much more likely to have highly rated teachers compared to other schools, The News found based on data from the first years of TEI.”

I find this funny because after all the complexity and effort of the TEI merit pay system, they’ve learned what teachers already knew.  Namely, the most important factor for test scores is the students that walk into the classroom.  The idea that teachers who already worked with the smartest students were rewarded in this merit-pay scheme exposes the farce that Mike Miles’ system really is. 

Teachers already know that advanced students are the most pleasant students to teach and that they will do the best on tests.  Miles’ system merely punished teachers who chose, to their credit, to teach difficult populations of students.  In Miles’ system, these teachers were labeled as ineffective, “progressing,” struggling, or whatever ridiculous label he gave them. 

Surely, Dallas ISD’s TEI system is convoluted, but it also created perverse incentives. Your best bet in a merit-pay system is to teach students who are already smart.  

On the other Hand 

On the other hand, there are a couple elements of Miles’ plan for Houston which don’t necessarily appear as ill-advised as the rest of his program.  Miles’ plan to turn some libraries into discipline centers is ripe for mockery; it tends to open him up to the charge that he’s “against books.”  But at least it indicates that he’s taking student discipline seriously.

I don’t recall anything about his tenure in Dallas ISD to suggest that he was interested in student discipline.  He seemed mostly interested in disciplining teachers.  So if Miles has changed his attitude about student discipline, this should be applauded. It sounds a little crazy to turn libraries into discipline centers.  But at least it shows the guy is serious.  Many teachers are exacerbated with disruptive students, and it is hard to believe they wouldn’t, even secretly, applaud this move.  

Another reason for optimism is Miles’ plan, according to the Texas Tribune, to cut 200 administrative positions.  School districts are notoriously top-heavy with admin positions of dubious value for actual students. 

Working in Houston ISD Will Not Be Fun

While I wouldn’t want to work for Mike Miles, it’s nice to see someone trying something different on discipline and getting rid of redundant employees with high salaries. In the interests of fairness, I want to give credit where it’s due.

With that said, it is highly doubtful that his merit pay scheme will yield good results in Houston ISD, judging from Dallas ISD, which did not see any statistically significant gains in STAAR test after Miles’ tenure.  Whatever small gains in discipline Miles might make, it isn’t really worth it for the teachers that have to endure the headache which is his merit pay system.  Just imagine all the time and energy that will be wasted in implementing it.  

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