Pay for Performance does not work

I watched Daniel Pink’s TED talk on the surprising science of motivation this morning.

Pink discussed pay for performance, also known as merit-based pay, and provided strong evidence that it does not work. In fact, he showed that pay for performance actually erodes performance. He did relent and agree that pay for performance can be successful in highly defined scenarios where the worker sees a clear path to a finished product—the traditional widget maker—but I have heard evidence that paying employees for performance in those situations may lead to skulduggery, mistrust, and sabotage in a fiduciary survival of the fittest. Take this for instance:

“As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance. But once the task called for ‘even rudimentary cognitive skill,’ a larger reward ‘led to poorer performance.’

“In eight of the nine tasks we examined across the three experiments, higher incentives led to worse performance.”

Citation given for the study: D. Ariely, U. Gneezy, G. Lowenstein, & N. Mazar, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Working Paper No. 05-11; NY Times, 20 Nov. 08

Also, consider this blunt truth from Dr. Bernd Irlenbusch of the London School of Economics:

“We find that financial incentives…can result in a negative impact on overall performance.”

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have cast us headlong on a path that could send schoolhouses across the country backwards in time or even dismantle public education altogether. How are they doing this? By tying a bunch of money to it—$4 billion—in a little thing called Race to the Top.

It’s strange and frustrating that with so much data proving pay for performance doesn’t work and so little data to the contrary, that politicians are emphatically pushing to make merit-based pay for teachers mandatory in public schools.

Unfortunately, my beloved state of Georgia is leading the pack in Duncan’s Race to the Top. Here is a look into what I think Race to the Top could really mean to public schools in Georgia. To begin with, and this is a huge point, nobody in the state can be sure what the money is tied to. Here is an excerpt from page 6 of the “Race to the Top Program Executive Summary” released in November 2009 (with my emphasis on what I think are key points of mystery:)

(ii) The participating LEAs (as defined in this notice) are strongly committed to the State’s plans and to effective implementation of reform in the four education areas, as evidenced by Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) (as set forth in Appendix D) or other binding agreements between the State and its participating LEAs (as defined in this notice) that include—

(a) Terms and conditions that reflect strong commitment by the participating LEAs (as defined in this notice) to the State’s plans;

(b) Scope-of-work descriptions that require participating LEAs (Local Education Agencies) to implement all or significant portions of the State’s Race to the Top plans…

If Georgia’s Race to the Top application is successful it will bring $400 million to Georgia. Wow! That’s a lot of money, right?

Not so fast moneybags!

The money will be split down the middle from the beginning with $200 million going to the state Department of Education and the remainder to be shared with school districts. If the remaining $200 million was evenly distributed among Georgia’s 180 public school districts, each would receive approximately $1.1 million.

Realistically, the distribution would affected by enrollment, poverty, and other variables, so some districts would get more than $1.1 million and others would get less. While every bit of money helps, especially these days, is it worth a million bucks or so to implement some mysterious “plan” passed down from federal and state bureaucrats to local school boards?

One part of the plan we do know is that it will be tied to merit-based pay for teachers and that much of that “merit” will hinge on student performance on standardized tests. These are the same tests the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement has accused Georgia teachers of cheating on to inflate student achievement in its Statewide Analysis: Spring 2009 CRCT Grades 1-8.

The report does not prove teachers cheated. It measured erasure marks, particularly those where an incorrect answer was changed to a correct answer. It is worthy to note that students are encouraged to review their work and change their answers if necessary. Also, teachers are encouraged to clean up stray marks to ensure the tests are graded correctly when scored by the electronic scanner.

Something I find more disheartening than the possibility that teachers are cheating is that the Governor’s office, not the Board of Education, is driving the direction of education in Georgia. This is huge. In this very Republican state, this could be a part of the national push to methodically destroy public education.

Look at a few things:

  • Governor’s Office of Student Achievement releases CRCT erasure report.
  • Bill proposed in the state House would make it a crime for teachers to cheat on standardized tests punishable by fines, jail time, and loss of retirement.
  • Tons of support for vouchers in the legislature, as is usual.

The irony is that legislators say from one side of their mouth that we need an educated workforce to draw business and industry to Georgia. Meanwhile, from the other side of their mouth, they accuse teachers of cheating and publicly discredit public education while attempting to impose bureaucratic systems that encourage teachers to work in isolation to protect their paycheck.

So what am I trying to say here? Basically, that politics and education should not be mixed. Very little of what happens in the Governor’s Office and General Assembly takes into account what is best for students in Georgia. If our legislators are serious about reducing crime, attracting good businesses and industries to the state, building the economy and improving the quality of life for all of Georgia’s residents, then one of the key questions that should be on their mind is something like this: “Is what I am about to do going to help Georgia’s students?”

If the politician’s answer is yes then they are on the right path to recovery; however, if they answer no we can expect to see industries continue to leave Georgia, we can expect to see unemployment continue to rise, we can expect crime to continue increasing, and we can expect families to move to parts of the country where education is celebrated rather than denigrated.

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