Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Pay for Performance

The big item on my mind today has been PFP, based on an article in the AJC. They reported that Georgia teachers will begin participating in PFP this coming fall – at least the 26 districts that opted in to RTTT here .

I’m conflicted about it. On the one hand, this morning I read this interview of Bill Gates and the head of the American Federation of Teachers in which he said that 25% of teachers are very good. Many teachers are not, granted. I’ve worked in two very good school systems which have probably given me a skewed view of education – I think education is much better off than it probably is because of the high quality of teachers I’ve had the privilege to work with.

That being said, if only 25% of teachers are top notch, how does that compare to other professions? What percentage of doctors or lawyers or computer techs would be considered to be “very good”? For that matter, how do we decide what “very good” looks like? If we continually make more teachers “very good”, wouldn’t the bar continue to rise, so that we’ll never have, say, 80% of teachers reach that mark? It’s a moving target, right?

The same goes for student achievement, I’d think. As more knowledge enters the world and as our expectations for what students should be able to do increases, the bar for what we consider an “average” student to be will rise. Fareed Zakaria says that the past few years hasn’t been a case of America falling behind in the world (he was talking economically, but I think it applies to education too). Instead, he says it’s the phenomenon of “the rise of the rest”. We’re not necessarily falling further behind, it’s just that the others are beginning to catch up.

Now, that doesn’t mean I think there’s not progress to be made. Ironically, the very system that was created to help us increase our standing in the world has done the most damage – Bush’s NCLB legislation relied so heavily on standardized test scores that the last 10 years has seen an over-emphasis on linear, narrow-minded thinking, both in children and in the educators who teach them. We’ve come to worship correct answers instead of embracing the idea of failure. We need to be open to failure in order for growth to occur (this makes more sense after seeing the previous clip). And that’s not happening in our current school culture.

My question is: Will teachers be open to failure with pay for performance? In other words, will they be willing to try a new instructional strategy if their pay is riding on the progress their students make? Or will they stay inside their instructional box because it’s worked so well in the past?

I understand that education needs to be improved. I even agree that good teaching should be rewarded and also emulated. Perhaps education needs to become a capitalist endeavor, where success is met with monetary reward and comparison of scores from this year and last creates a competitive edge. For me, the jury’s still out. But like it or not, a verdict is coming soon.


Anonymous said...

This is a good topic, and I recently read an interesting book that applied principles of behavior economics to this subject.

In Predictably Irrational, Daniel Ariely wrote that people live in two worlds, one of social norms and the other of market norms. In the world of social norms, we're motivated to feel accepted, be liked, serve our community, defend our country, and so forth. In the world of market norms, we're motivated by financial compensation... cash, in other words.

Interestingly, Ariely claims that social norms are much more powerful than market norms. You couldn't pay someone to risk his life in a really dangerous situation, but there have been lots of soldiers who've given their lives to defend their country or fight for a cause they believe in.

One way to mess things up is to take a situation governed by social norms and convert it to market norms. Ariely gives an example of daycare parents who would try very hard to pick their kid up before closing time to be considerate of the staff. When a particular daycare center instituted a late fee, however, late pickups actually increased. In the world of social norms, parents were embarrassed to be late, but in the world of market norms, they didn't mind paying for the convenience. So the daycare center dropped the late charge, but lateness didn't go back down. Once you've crossed from social norms to market norms, it's very difficult to go back. The spell was broken.

Ariely has served on a federal committee on incentives and accountability in public education. He told the committee that he believes that PFP would push education from a world of social norms to market norms. But cash will only take us so far - social norms are much more powerful. It would be better, he argued, to instill in all of us (parents, teachers, kids) a sense of purpose, mission and pride in education. You can't buy a love of learning, and, if you try, you might chase it away.

So how can we improve education? Ariely recommends linking curricula to social goals (elimination of poverty and crime), tech goals (boosting energy conservation, nanotechnology), medical goals (curing diseases) and so forth. Tell the kids and their parents that we're counting on them to solve these problems and save the world, and they'll need to get a good education to do it.

Heather said...

Fascinating response. It reminds me of a TED talk I saw around a year go, either by Daniel Pink, where he talks about creativity and motivation. It's been a while, but he presented the "matchbox" problem for groups of people to solve and found that those who were compensated displayed less creativity and motivation than those who were not. You can see a brief mention of it and a link to the talk here: http://www.nehrlich.com/blog/2010/01/20/drive-by-daniel-pink/