Conferences: The Acceptable Alternative To Work

Next week the National Center on Performance Incentives is hosting a big pay-for-performance conference at Vanderbilt. It’s overbooked now but you can read the papers here including one that Jane Hannaway and I did on performance pay and collective bargaining/teachers’ unions (pdf). They’re all good and worth your time but I’d especially recommend the papers by Goldhaber, Ryan, Winters et al, and Rothstein. On the latter, the issues that Rothstein raises are hardly insurmountable but do need to be on the table and considered.

The Winters paper is interesting because, as Jane and I note, there are really two theories of action that undergird most of the discussions about pay-for-performance. One is that linking pay to performance will encourage people to work harder. The second is that rewarding performance will make the profession a more attractive one and create a more performance-oriented culture overall. For my part, I tend to discount the first and embrace the second. I don’t think teachers will suddenly work harder or better in a pay-for-performance system — for the same reason we’re seeing struggles around effective instruction overall. But, though it’s early and a lot more research is needed, that might be wrong…

5 Replies to “Conferences: The Acceptable Alternative To Work”

  1. Thank you for bringing these papers to our attention. It’s an important conversation and I can’t wait to read more.

  2. I agree that good teachers are probably not going to work harder as a result of performance pay. However, might shame or fear of job loss motivate weaker teachers to work harder if they think a pay-for-performance system will identify the stronger and weaker teachers. Clearly some sort of transparent evaluation system must be in place to make performance pay decisions, and one would hope that weaker teachers would pay attention to who is getting the additional pay, perhaps even learn and emulate effective practices.

  3. No, Gideon, pay for performance will not motivate weaker teachers to work harder. The theory that the dollar incentives will somehow spur more work is unfounded. Effecting teaching has more to do with skill than motivation. If a laborer can only carry one 80 pound concrete block, it doesn’t matter if you tell him you will pay him twice as much if he lifts two 80 pound blocks because he is not capable of doing it in the first place. As far as theory number 2, one only needs to sit back and see some of the fallout from the recession to realize that a stable job with known salary advancement and a guaranteed pension looks pretty good for enticing skilled teachers into the field. Pay for performance is not the answer. Giving teachers greater say in determining curriculum and establishing individual routes for success–now that would be quite an enticement for newer, innovative, skilled folks. This path however would require faith in local control something that the national fix-it reformers who pervade blogs such as this couldn’t stand to see.

  4. Thanks for the citations; all the reports were great.

    I particularly liked the acknowledgment that performance pay is “an avenue for school reform” and not a “‘silver bullet.’” Moreover, successful plans like Denver’s are the “result of ‘ persistence, tenacity, inventiveness, and a capacity for improvisation.’” and it requires union “buy-in.” None of the successful plans were “designed with a single focus in mind (e.g., raising test scores), and that the lessons of failed merit pay plans must be remembered.

    I like the wording of the reports in regard to sustainability and capacity-building. For instance, “the costs of instituting a reasonably credible system (of accountability) have gone down dramatically.” “Ideas (for a well-designed and fair system) are now within reach.” Or, “I do not believe that this lack of knowledge about how to structure effective reforms should stand in the way of experimenting with reform.” In all three cases the emphasis is mine.

    Polling data also confirms the belief that older teachers are more skeptical and my hope that Baby Boomers will protect the integrity of the principles of public education, but younger teachers are more supportive of performance pay. Were it up to me, I’d want society to focus on reforms that seem more promising. But we need compromise. The evidence for performance pay is just as good as the evidence against it. History is on the side of its proponents. So, I want our unions to help make it work. But in return, I want help in defeating the testing culture that has been made worse by NCLB. If nothing else, it will be much more difficult to build the prerequisite trust if educational values are not explicitly protected.

    Above all, this discussion should be conducted within the framework of Richard Rothstein’s wise analysis of the human dynamics of data-driven accountability when high stakes are attached. The same corruption of data, sampling, creaming, and unintended consequences which we have seen in education were predicted by studies by Nobel laureates in economics, RAND, the Harvard Business School, The New England Journal of Medicine, the GAO, the Department of Commerce, the Labor Department, MediCaid, the Health Care Financing Administration, and the Royal Statistical Society. Since NCLB educators have conformed to the same patterns documented in: health insurance in California, Washington and Pennsylvania; cardiac care in New York and Toronto; perinatal care in England; busses in Chile; airlines in the US; JTPA and its successor WIA; police in New York City, Chicago, and Washi8ngton D.C. and the FBI; English ambulances; the “sweeps” in televison and the New York Times Best Seller lists; and, of course, the Vietnam War and the Soviet Union. Perhaps the best part of the appraisal was Rothstein’s analysis of the Private Sector in recent years. Using numerous industries, he explained how performance pay was increasing, while the old-fashioned approach of pay being based on objective measures has declined.

    My favorite conclusion came from the British working group that “it is unsmart” to hold providers accountable for improvements in averages. Now that’s data-driven decision-making that we can all be proud of.

    John Thompson

  5. Dang, my attempt at inserting empasis did not show up. The words I wanted to emphasize were that a REASONABLY CREDIBLE system of accountablitiy is WITHIN REACH, and the lack of knowledge about those sysytems should not stop EXPERIMENTS.

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