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Restructuring Education

Publication Date: 
March 10, 2009

Professor William Koski is interviewed on KCBS radio about President Obama's educational reform plan. Below is an excerpt of the interview:

KCBS: For more on the President’s support for merit pay, we’re joined live on the KCBS Newsline by Bill Koski, he’s a Stanford Professor of Law specializing in education policy.

In your opinion – merit pay good idea or bad idea?

Koski: The term “merit pay” is a bit of a lightning rod and I’m not sure President Obama would have used that term himself. Merit pay or pay-for-performance is a complicated issue because it all depends on the design of the plan—what aspects of teaching are we rewarding; whether or not we reward teachers for student performance or other types of quality teaching; who decides what is good teaching and how is that decided—all of these are design questions that are quite important. In addition to that, pay-for-performance matters when you look at whether we’re rewarding individual teachers or teachers as groups because there is some aspect of teaching that requires collaboration among pears. In my opinion, it depends on the design of any specific plan for rewarding teacher performance.

If we’re talking about rewarding teachers for student performance, we have to have a pretty clear vision of what we want our students to be doing. Is it simply performance on standardized tests? Or more complex measures including graduation, going on to college and so on? So there’s a lot of debate over how we’re going to measure what’s a good education and good teaching.

One of the big issues in looking at any accountability system in education is whether or not we just measure absolute performance of kids or try to determine what the value added is of any teacher or classroom. There are a lot of background variables that kids come to school with on that first day of school in September – their socioeconomic status, how they performed in the past, all that sort of thing. So the thinking there is that it’s not really fair to hold a teacher accountable for things she can’t really control. Instead let’s look at how much value she adds to that child throughout the year.


I’m not sure we’ll ever get to a plan that everyone thought worked, but in a number of local districts, there have been school-wide performance-based incentives that have been adopted. Part of this was from our education reforms when we were more fiscally flush a few years back—the governor would provide rewards for whole schools that raised their students’ performance. It’s hard to tell whether any of that worked because we don’t know what “worked” means.