As a practical libertarian (yes, editor of something called Somewhat Reasonable) and realist education reformer, I tend to take people by surprise when I come out strongly against “Performance Pay.” I know many of the most ardent supporters of education reform and free-market policy tend to push for performance pay as a winnable compromise in policy. I, on the other hand, think that (like so many things in politics) this idea is much better in name than practice– and so do the results.
Performance pay is as based on “performance” as the Patriot Act is based on “patriotism.” In theory, a performance-based system would measure the effectiveness of each teacher at advancing the average student in the year that they have them. It would then incentivize success and punish failure. The problem is — correction, the problems are — that it is nearly impossible to gain an objective measure of teacher performance in any way that could be applicable to an entire state. Standardized tests fail to account for courses like history, arts, music, PE, and often even science. Even those tests are flawed because they are administered by the same people responsible for educating.
And when you begin to pull apart the actual policy, things look even less promising. Many performance pay plans are voluntary and none have a system of punishment for failure.
Today I’ve been vindicated. On the heels of several major academic studies in the same vein, the Center for Education Reform has released its report card on performance pay and the results are bleak. As the report‘s author points out:
“There is no national model for teacher performance pay that is being utilized in any state, city, or school in America today—with the exception of public charter schools and private schools.
Teacher performance pay remains the final frontier of education reform, and the confusion surrounding the issue has the potential to lead to watered-down, ineffective programs that emphasize “buy-in” over student growth.”
The National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University undertook a similar, albeit more rigorously objective, research project. The authors conclude that:
“Performance pay is often thought to be the magic bullet. That doesn’t appear to be the case here. We need to develop more thoughtful and comprehensive ways of thinking about compensation. But at the same time, we’re not even sure whether incentive pay is an effective strategy for improving the system itself.”
Its not. The reason we don’t see heavily-bureaucratic and confusing opt-in performance pay systems in our normal 9-5 jobs is because it isn’t necessary. Our jobs rely on getting people to buy a product or service. If our bosses think we aren’t helping that goal we get reprimanded or likely fired. If we are helping a lot, we’ll get a raise. This is the power of the labor market in an open economy. “Well, schools aren’t an open economy,” they’ll say…. True, lets change that. I’ve certainly got some ideas.