Sunday, March 27, 2011

The importance of missing the mark

Pay for performance. It's currently a pretty hot issue. There's plenty articles telling us how poorly it's working, too. A great summary of US and UK tests on pay-for-performance is at the Telegraph. Basically, giving teachers incentives for improving test scores of $3000-$15,000 is not effective in increasing the children's test scores.

I'm sorry, but everyone's completely missing the mark here!

What exactly does an incentivized teacher do to improve test scores? The teacher either tries harder to teach more or tries harder to teach better, or gets more stressed out about teaching harder or better, or ...? What? What makes these people think the problem is how hard the teachers are teaching?

Pay-for-performance works fine on an assembly line. Man vs. Machine.

Pay-for-performance works fine on performing services. Man vs. Himself.
[And all examples I can think of where pay-for-performance impacts Man vs. Nature (which in all the cases I can think of the pay results directly from the conflict so pay-for-performance is inherently rampant there) are simply messy and perhaps require their own rant.]

But didn't the science people thinking up these messed-up experiments pay any attention in class -- ANY class other than strictly hardcore science? This is a Man vs. Man problem. The teachers are NOT the end worker in this situation. Students are unpaid workers in the business of producing test scores. The teachers don't produce the test scores. [Note: by no means am I saying the students SHOULD be unpaid workers in the business of producing test scores. This is the simple fact of No Child Left Behind and its precursors in the American public schooling system.] The harder the teacher works to try to coerce, force, threaten, bully, force-feed information and skill to the students, the more pre-test drills, the more the teacher gets anxious and sweats bullets because their precious bonus is on the line -- the less likely the students are to perform to their expectations.

And most teachers are smart enough to know this, because basically you don't become a teacher if you didn't pay attention in anything other than hardcore science classes. Most teachers are quite aware that they try hard enough, thank you very much. You may not see negative effects on this study in a real classroom because the teachers say "sure, we'll try" and then they actually go do what they do best, which is really try the hardest the system will let them, because they already try really hard. So many teachers out there give their all. They accept pressure from the President and from the lawmakers who create ridiculous bureaucracy in doing what teachers do the best -- inspire children to learn. Those who aren't there to inspire children to learn would have gotten a better job. The longer the teacher is in the system the lower their rewards. Oh sure they need money like everyone, but they hunger more than any money for a single adult they taught to turn to them and say "You know, YOUR class REALLY made a difference to me. Thank you."

What happens on the shop floor if you give the manager a pay-for-performance incentive. "If your 10 direct reports do well, we'll give you a $3000 bonus." They probably wouldn't be incentivized for only $3000. Ok, maybe the $15,000? So they lean on their direct reports harder, right? Or they coerce them. They get out the verbal whip, put their jobs on the line, yell more, get meaner? The best boss is going to sit down with their direct reports and say, "Hey guys, they offered me a $15,000 bonus if you guys speed up the line to make 2,000 units a day. If we make 2,500 units a day, I'll give my bonus to you guys instead and split it evenly amongst all of you. I won't take a cent of it." You can probably imagine what happens here. First, the manager was honest. Second, the manager shows he cares about the workers. Third, the manager didn't get all sado-masochistic on them; the manager turned into a leader. Even for the end workers, it's probably not about the $1,500 bonus they'd get, it's about being in it together, and the inspiration that their manager cares about them. They won't want to let anyone else down.

You want to see heads turn? Don't incentivize the teachers. Incentivize the students. And I'm not saying to pay them with money, really, but you need to figure out how the students tick. "If you do really well on your tests, we'll give you back your arts program." "If you do really well, we'll hire back that music teacher you love." "If you do really well, we'll make sure there are twice as many field trips." "If you do really well, we'll make sure that high school you're in next year has a theater program." "If you do really well, we'll take your whole grade to see the world series!"

Why are schools failing? Because you now value test scores more than human achievements. Because you've removed everything creative, inspiring and fun from the school system. Because you undervalue the art of teaching by telling teachers how to do their business so that educating the masses is more like torture for everyone involved. If the teachers didn't love trying to teach, they'd have left teaching a long time ago.

Three words: Student. Centered. Learning. Our school system is a very very sick system. There are some few gems out there, and they can't even serve as a model for the other schools out there until we begin to pull back all the bureaucratic chains holding back the school districts and administrators so that they can, in-turn, free the teachers to practice their art. Because teaching is an ART, not a science.
Please stop making the situation worse than it already is. If you have anything at all to do with education, please check out my posts about William Glasser and Quality Schools.


  1. Good thoughts. Your point that "Students are unpaid workers in the business of producing test scores" is one that most people arguing for merit pay today don't see. It's as if it's a known absolute truth that teachers are totally at fault for all the system's ills, and the only proposed solutions must deal with them, not the students.
    To be fair, that's because our political reality won't allow us to address the student end of the equation. Home is sacrosanct; the state must keep hands off, and that goes for politicians reaching for any solutions.
    -- Scott Hunter

  2. I agree that home is sacrosanct. Absolutely! However, I still think that, as citizens, it's important to help people who don't have choices to continue to access a reasonable public education system. I'm staying abreast of the news because I still care about the future of the country and the planet. And because sometimes there are stories about practices or ideas I can incorporate into my children's education (with or without homeschooling).