New study on performance-pay out of Nashville (pdf). Well done and worth your time if you follow the issue.  Sawchuk’s write-up is, as always, a must-read.   Couple of quick thoughts on this:

*I’ve never thought, and have written previously here, that pay was a lever to make people work harder or better, we all have capacity constraints affecting what we can or can’t do.   So the results are not especially surprising.   The impact of moving to a compensation system that recognizes performance has more to do with the teaching force in the future than the teaching force today.  It sends a signal that in this field, performance and excellence matters.  Right now the signal is that everyone gets treated alike, as widgets, regardless of how well or how poorly you do your job.

*This is one study, the rapidity with which a surprising number of people are saying this somehow settles the debate about performance pay is discouraging if you care about sensible consumption of research and evidence.  And funny, they don’t say that about single studies that don’t confirm their views…

*A preliminary study of the same issue in Little Rock (that I can’t find a link for right now but will add when I do) found different results (and ones that challenge my assumption about pay making people work harder and better).  A lot of work happening out there on this.  Just sayin’…

New Head Start regulation out of Washington.

Important proposed regulation on Head Start quality. Low-performing Head Start programs would have to compete to continue funding.  This would have the effect of (a) improving quality and (b) ending the essentially entitlement-oriented approach to Head Start centers, which should pay dividends system-wide.  It’s going to be controversial (a lot of jobs at stake – I know, I know, it’s all about the kids!) so pay attention to the proposed regulation and the final regulation. But this is a big deal because despite its popularity, Head Start has a long way to go to be more uniformly effective.

12 Replies to “New!”

  1. Guess who is more likely than the average worker making the same pay in a different field to be offered a mortgage? A teacher on a salary schedule.

    Guess who is less likely to default on their current mortgage even during a recession? A teacher on a salary schedule.

    Seems like a great incentive to top graduates to me.

    The hubris of many ed reformers that leads them to assert that the “revolution of compensation” is an absolute certainty may well be thier undoing. These folks are the same as the Democrats who got trapped in Thomas Friedman’s “golden straitjacket” about 15 years ago and have never figured a way out.

  2. I spent 10 years working for a federal science agency (NOAA) before going into teaching. While I haven’t taught under a merit pay system I worked under a merit pay pilot program at NOAA (they called it a pay for performance demonstration project) and as a manager I found it to be an overwhelming waste of time. Essentially they took the entire pool of money available for step and pay increases for a given year and devoted about half of it to normal step increases and devoted the other half to pay for performance increases. So managers had to spend a tremendous amount of time making sure every employee had a defined job description with benchmarks and then had to evaluate their performance against those benchmarks. In the end, most employees got a middle of the road performance pay increase that ended up about exactly like they would have gotten anyway. A few star employees got a couple thousand more and a few poor employees came up a bit short in the performance pay but still saw their pay creep up slightly anyway due to the step increase. Ultimately I don’t think anyone really changed what they were doing one bit except for the managers who had to spend hundreds or thousands of additional hours implementing the mess.

    With respect to teaching. I’m not at all surprised that these programs really didn’t accomplish much. It’s not like most teachers have some reserve of talent or ideas waiting to be unleashed if only they received some performance pay. Most teachers I know are already working incredibly hard. And administering a system would be incredibly complex in any typical school where students are stratified by ability and only certain subjects even receive standardized tests.

    What I would like to see is a system where all the schools in a big school system like say Houston or Chicago were granted a certain amount of autonomy from the principal on down to implement their own ideas for school improvement. Then all the schools would be evaluated for their school-wide test performance against some sort of curve adjusting for demographics so that it is possible to fairly evaluate which schools are out-performing and which schools are under-performing compared to other schools with similar demographics.

    Then give EVERYONE in the high performing schools a big performance bonus. The principals, counselors, teachers, custodians, bus drivers, coaches, and food service workers. Everyone of those employees helps set the tone for the school so reward every single one of them with an equal bonus.

    That sort of system would do more for fostering the sort of cooperative environment that raises scores than any sort of individual teacher merit pay. I teach science but I also teach reading and writing and critical thinking skills to my students that will help them in their English classes. The music teachers teach skills that help in math class. And so on.

    But this sort of school-based merit pay system isn’t going to further the agenda of the privatization (charter school) advocates so I doubt it would go anywhere.

  3. here’s the experiment I want to see. give starting teachers 80k base salary but no tenure. if they suck after 3 years give them the boot. If the rock, bump em up to 120k and if the continue to knock their evaluations out of the park (we need better evaluations however) give em 10k increases each year! I’m happy to shove out the dough if the outputs go up. If we did that I bet you the teaching profession would change radically. You would instantly see more men apply for jobs. You would see more kids from selective colleges pursue it, and you’d get an entirely different crop of candidates.

    Is this a liberal or conservative proposal? I have no idea and don’t really care. It’s liberal in that is spends more, but conservative in that it wants to unleash the market to get people’s attention.

  4. daprofessor

    Your thought experiment assumes that teachers are actually in control of their time, resources, curriculum, and well…pretty much any part of their professional lives.

    I don’t control the classes I teach, my budget (or lack of it) my lab equipment (or lack of it) my computer and AV equipment (or lack of it) my textbooks (or lack of them). I don’t control much of my prep and planning time as I am constantly burdened with administrative demands, special ed paperwork, endless ARD meetings. I don’t control how disruptive students are dealt with (or not) by my administration.

    I’m not saying that teacher’s don’t make a difference. It’s that they are only one part of the equation. What makes a school successful requires the dedicated involvement of everyone from the superintendent and school boards down to the custodians and food service workers. Yes you can find those few superhero teachers who can cut through any obstacle and work miracles– the Jaime Escalantes of the world about whom movies are made. But they are the ones who are least motivated by money in the first place which is the fundamental flaw of your proposal.

    Yes the teaching profession would radically change if we implemented your thought experiment. A whole lot of the venal alcoholic frat boys I knew in college who became stockbrokers would end up wasting a whole lot of students’ time in their attempts to strike it rich in the teaching profession.

  5. kent:

    i think you under-estimate the degree to which all of the limitations you cite regarding teacher autonomy are also existent in many other professions in which we find pay to be an effective way to lure talent into the profession. from my understanding the research on what predicts a highly-effective teachers says basically other than verbal aptitude “we don’t know.” it’s a some folks have it, some don’t. as a policy analyst that says to me that the best way to increase the supply of highly effective teachers is to:

    a) have financial incentives in place that draw more higher aptitude folks into the profession (e.g. what motivates graduates of selective colleges ala TFA)…


    b) have an accountability system for teachers that quickly exits low-performers

  6. Kent and daprofessor: It’s an interesting concept you’re discussing (raising the pay of teachers significantly, but relying on stricter evaluations). I agree with daprofessor that changing the pay scales for teachers would affect the types of people who are drawn to the profession (I’ve no doubt that more men would enter the profession, especially working men with wives who are at home).

    However, I also agree with Kent that this probably won’t have much affect on the success of the schools overall: In my experience as a former teacher, all the variables Kent cites (school discipline policy, planning periods, classroom supplies) have a huge effect on any given teacher’s effectiveness. Even if a very talented teacher puts in long hours, he will still struggle to perform well if other variables out of his control are working against him — for example, if the school allows certain disruptive students to remain in the classroom (no matter what misbehavior they exhibit) or if the principal keeps switching the teacher from new subject to new subject with little or no notice, or if a science teacher has missing or outdated equipment (to name just a few of the relevant issues).

  7. Here’s a specific example:

    My last year of teaching in a very low-income school I had a disabled child in my first grade class. Because the child had recently come from Mexico, there was very little information about her. The mother and stepfather told me that the little girl (six years old) had been traumatized by her natural father, causing the mother and the child to flee to the United States where the mother remarried.

    The child had terrible tantrums that would erupt for the smallest reason. She would begin to scream and scream. Not only did my instruction cease, but it also stopped in the rooms of the other teachers as they left their classrooms to help me. When this happened the principal would come to my room, try to calm the child and then call the stepfather who would come to pick her up. The whole episode would comsume about an hour of class time and would occur once or twice a week.

    This went on for about a year but at the end she was finally placed in a therapeutic environment for second grade. Why did it take so long? I can’t answer that for certain but in my old district, the board of education absolutely hated special education because of the cost so they would put a lot of pressure on the principals to avoid placing anyone in these classes. In addition to this, the child’s parents did not ask for extra help (many immigrants are just grateful for a decent school as this child’s mother was). Other parents did not complain.

    Contrast this with my son’s school in an affluent part of town. One of his classmates was also a “screamer.” The child did it twice and then he was suspended until the parents got a psych evaluation. When he came back to school, he was on medication and his grandmother was there to make certain he didn’t disturb the other children.

    I’m not saying my son’s school did the “right” thing because I don’t know but what I am saying is that these disruptive situations are simply not tolerated in suburban schools. The parents will not allow it. As a teacher I had to put up with such behavior, but as a parent I wouldn’t have stood it for more than a day.

    The basic problem is that good schools depend on partnerships between educators and parents. When that partnership is not there, the schools suffer and the work of the teacher is thwarted.

  8. Linda: As always, you bring a refreshingly realistic perspective to these conversations on ed policy. I certainly agree that the efforts of a good teacher can be “thwarted” (to use your term) by difficult school policies, inattentive parents, and a host of other factors. Thanks for taking the time to bring a personal example to this discussion. It’s unfortunate that there isn’t any quick-fix solution to these types of problems (which is probably why the ed policy world is so quick to rely on untested, feel-good strategies like “blame the teacher”).

  9. Thanks. I am curious about something with legal implications and wonder if you know the answer:

    If a superintendent of schools fired teachers so she could make room for young people from the organization she founded isn’t that against the law?

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