Friday, June 14, 2013

Pay for Performance: the worst idea ever?

Our state and federal political leaders are invested in the idea of reforming education through accountability for results. There's nothing wrong there in theory, but the implementation is being distilled down to paying (and firing) teachers on the basis of test scores. Remember the axiom: you get what you measure. (Nor is every important result easy to measure.)

So, we’re in trouble in Michigan immediately. For three years, we have invested prodigious time and effort and millions of dollars in teacher training, curriculum writing, and hardware for the on-line Smarter Balanced Assessments set to replace the MEAP in the coming school year. All of this is based on the Common Core State Standards — for which implementation the legislature just denied funding.

So, will students be tested and teachers evaluated (as mandated by state law) on the basis of old tests that do not match the new curricula? What possible sense does that make?

And what is the point? Weren’t we trying to improve student learning?

We know from a robust and valid research base what works to improve teaching and learning: when teachers focus on analyzing, together, evidence of student learning, and when they hold one another collectively responsible for these outcomes, children achieve more. See ACSD’s “How Do Principals Really Improve Schools?” for numerous citations.

A collaborative culture of teaching professionals is the research-proven best practice that we should be encouraging. Instead, our ill-informed legislature keeps mandating practices proven not to work but to actually undermine that collaboration.

“Merit pay” or “pay for performance” does not work and puts teachers into competition with one another. There is NO research showing that it improves student performance or positively changes teacher behavior.

“Merit pay” makes things worse

But beyond absolutely not working, pay for performance makes thing worse. The “bigger stick” approach to improving instruction — by putting teachers’ pay and their very jobs in jeopardy — fosters fear and short-term thinking. Fear, competition, and short-term thinking prevent rather than encourage organizational improvement.

Daniel Pink: in the MIT incentives study, “the high reward produced the worst performance. It has been proven over and over again by psychologists, sociologists, and economists [that] incentives work for simple, if-then tasks; but when tasks require some conceptual, creative thinking, straightforward rewards like money do not work and often lead to poorer performance.”

W. Edwards Deming: merit pay “nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, nourishes rivalry and politics.”

• Large corporations proved that the “bigger stick” is a bad idea by implementing it. Both IBM and Ford, some years ago, discovered that “forced ranking” employee evaluation systems destroyed the cooperation and collegiality necessary to efficient and effective operations.

When we set out to radically change the institution of public education, we should do so on the basis of valid research proving what actually works rather than our preconceived notions. We should carefully pilot and monitor changes so as not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. And we must always put the needs of our children over our ideology or the interests of those positioned to profit off them — such as testing and software corporations and for-profit school operators.

How about applying this to the legislature?

Regarding school districts in deficit, one of our legislators was recently quoted as insisting that “Someone must be held accountable!” Given that the legislature made unprecedented cuts in school funding and diverts $400 million a year from the School Aid Fund, I’d suggest that he look in the mirror.

Or, we could apply the same outcomes-based metrics to them. An editorial (“Teacher pay proposal flunks the test”) in The Livingston Daily recently suggested exactly that:

“Michigan lawmakers are among the highest paid in the nation, but the state doesn’t have the outcomes to justify those salaries…. Here’s a plan. Cut the pay of all lawmakers in half. Then, create a salary reward system based on quantitative improvements. A 10 percent pay hike, perhaps, if the Michigan unemployment rate dips below the national average. A similar sliding-scale reward when incomes rise. How about a bonus for lowering the number of residents living below the poverty level? Or improving the health status of Michigan residents?”

Or does such a suggestion insult and outrage them? Hmmm.