Performance Pay – What they don’t teach you in any school

Vidya Mahambare’s article in Business Standard [June 26] ‘Motivating Teachers’ was one which I could not forget. She wrote it in the June 26 edition. But I could not put it off my mind. That’s because I am so sharply in disagreement with her.

Let us first look at what she is saying: [Quote]
“An important determinant of the quality of education is the quality of teachers, especially their motivation. Increasing motivation of teachers and consequently enhancing their capabilities, therefore, are central to any systematic attempt to improve learning outcomes. Now, with a significant increase in salaries, would teaching once again be considered an attractive enough career option? There is little doubt that raising the average pay of teachers is a good first step. It is equally important to put in place however, an effective performance-linked-pay system that would ensure building in accountability and reward effectiveness, and not simply seniority. But how does one go about designing such a system, especially at the school-level?

One possibility is to reward teachers for improving students’ performance. The most common elements in performance-based compensation schemes for teachers that are in practice across the world include measuring of student achievement, measuring of parent satisfaction, and teacher evaluations. Among these, the measuring of student achievement is the most important. However, schemes that equate better examination scores of students with high teacher performance can lead teachers to focus only on students who are likely to improve test scores significantly with some extra effort by teachers. As a result, academically weak students would be left behind even more and the teachers who are assigned to these students would have little motivation to perform.

In a recent paper Barlevy and Neal have developed a performance-pay scheme that is fairer and more transparent than those used currently in the developed world. The authors have come up with a merit-pay system, supported by vigorous mathematical proofs, that compares the progress of students with the same level of baseline achievement. That is, students are divided into relevant peer groups, based on their initial test scores. Teachers would be paid a relative performance pay when a student achieves a higher percentile score within his peer group. This way, no teacher is placed at a systematic advantage or disadvantage because of the type of students s/he teaches. Further, there is little incentive for teachers to skew their efforts towards a specific set of students. Such a system would also greatly improve the degree to which teachers are made accountable to their clients (children and parents) and their managers (head teachers), just as in the corporate world.
Such a policy would no doubt stir up the debate about segregating students on the basis of their performance….”

Ms Mahambare has committed a fatal error: The study ‘Pay by Percentile’ Barlevy and Neal to which she had provided a link, declares on the front page itself that it is ‘Preliminary and Very Incomplete’. Now why should anyone quote such a study where the authors themselves are making a statement about its quality? Be that as it may, the reason for taking a note of the study is that the thoughts expressed are so common and so unsupported by research that they need to be addressed.

And here is what Alfie Kohn , the author of Punished By Rewards, writes in his article ‘The Folley of Merit Pay’ [Quote]

“Educational policymakers might be forgiven their shortsightedness if they were just proposing to raise teachers’ salaries across the board—or, perhaps, to compensate them appropriately for more responsibilities or for additional training. Instead, though, many are turning to some version of “pay for performance.” Here, myopia is complicated by amnesia: For more than a century, such plans have been implemented, then abandoned, then implemented in a different form, then abandoned again. The idea never seems to work, but proponents of merit pay never seem to learn.

Here are the educational historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban: “The history of performance-based salary plans has been a merry-go-round. In the main, districts that initially embraced merit pay dropped it after a brief trial.” But even “repeated experiences” of failure haven’t prevented officials “from proposing merit pay again and again.”
“Son of Merit Pay: The Sequel” is now playing in Cincinnati, Denver, Minneapolis, New York City, and elsewhere. The leading advocates of this approach—conservatives, economists, and conservative economists—insist that we need only adopt their current incentive schemes and, this time, teaching really will improve. Honest.

Wade Nelson, a professor at Winona State University, dug up a government commission’s evaluation of England’s mid-19th-century “payment by results” plan. His summary of that evaluation: Schools became “impoverished learning environments in which nearly total emphasis on performance on the examination left little opportunity for learning.” The plan was abandoned.

In The Public Interest, a right-wing policy journal, two researchers concluded with apparent disappointment in 1985 that no evidence supported the idea that merit pay “had an appreciable or consistent positive effect on teachers’ classroom work.” Moreover, they reported that few administrators expected such an effect “even though they had the strongest reason to make such claims.”

Alfie Kohn recommends a three step formula for improving performance:
1. Pay people well.
2. Pay people fairly.
3. Then do everything possible to take money off people’s minds.
I would readily agree.