Saturday, June 5, 2010

Does performance pay work in public education?

This week's online edition of Education Week, contains an article reporting on a study of the effectiveness of the performance pay program implemented for teachers in Chicago by then Chicago Superintendent of Schools, now Secretary of Education. The article reports on results of comparison of schools that adopted Duncan's performance pay plans as compared to other schools that did not:

Preliminary results from a Chicago program containing performance-based compensation for teachers show no evidence that it has boosted student achievement on math and reading tests, compared with a group of similar, nonparticipating schools, an analysis released today concludes.

The study is important because the performance pay plan adopted in these Chicago schools is the foundation for national policy and for the Race to the Top. In fact, there are a series of studies, a few finding a weak improvement resulting in some grades from performance pay, and others finding no improvement.

This research, and other research like it challenges us to ask whether leaders in St. Paul and Washington D.C. are pushing performance pay because it is proven to work, or whether they are pushing it because it answers a call for doing something that appears to be radically different in education. It seems to me that if we are going to be faithful to the central goal of graduating children to excellence, we must always be guided by doing what is proven to work. As we think about this, we need to be clear, that performance pay is one of the available reforms in the organization of teaching. One needs to keep in mind that performance pay is the most controversial, and probably the least effective of fundamental reforms in the the organization of schools and of the teaching profession. So this post is not designed to argue that we don't need to reform public schools: I'm suggesting rather that reform for the sake of reform is a mistake: we need to do what works.

We know that employee recognition works, of course. One of the leading employee recognition experts, Dr. Bob Nelson, writes in the business context:

Recognition represents the single most validated principle for driving desired behavior and performance in today’s work environments. Compared to the average company, employees in a recognition-focused company are 5 times more likely to feel valued, 11 times more likely to feel completely satisfied, 7 times more likely to stay, and 6 times more likely to invest in the company

Recognition works--indeed it is essential-- but the central problem is whether recognition by small performance pay bonuses is the kind of recognition that works in public education, and the evidence to date doesn't seem to support the idea that you can improve educational performance by implementing pay for testing results. What is often forgotten, in the performance pay debate is that, actually, performance pay isn't all that common, or all that productive even in the world of business. Nelson writes:

Most managers [wrongly] think money is the top motivator What employees really want is to be valued for a job well done by those they hold in high esteem. As Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, says, "Imagine that every person is wearing a sign around their neck that says, 'Make me feel important.'" Sure, compensation is important, but most employees consider it a right, an exchange for the work they do. As management consultant Rosabeth Moss Kanter puts it, "Compensation is a right; recognition is a gift."


Results of a recent survey by the Council of Communication Management also confirm that recognition of good performance is the top motivator of employee performance. But how many managers consider "appreciating others" to be a major function of their job today? Not many.This is true even though one-third of managers report that they themselves would rather work in an organization where they could receive better recognition.People want to feel they are making a contribution at work, and for most individuals, this is a function of having the respect of peers and colleagues, having managers who tell them when they do a good job, and being involved and informed about what's going on in their department or organization.


Nelson points out that the key to motivation is to focus on what motivates the employees who are actually doing the work. "What motivates others is often different from what motivates you," Nelson tells managers:

In the late 1940s, Lawrence Lindahl performed classic studies about what workers want from their jobs, and those studies were repeated with similar results in the early 1980s and 1990s.Managers identified good wages, job security, and promotion or growth opportunities as the primary reasons they believed their employees worked. Employees, on the other hand,reported intangibles such as appreciation for work done, feeling "in" on things, and empathetic managers as their most desired job attributes. When employees and supervisors ranked a list of motivators from one to 10 in order of their importance to workers, workers rated "appreciation for a job well done" as their top motivator; supervisors ranked it eighth.Employees ranked "feeling in on things" as being number two in importance; their managers ranked it last at number 10.

To have a motivating work environment, this perception gap between managers and employees must be closed. Managers must be sure to reward the behavior they desire with recognition that is valued and meaningful to their employees — not just themselves.

The problem with the performance pay movement is that is that politicians and pundits are looking for a magic bullet to close the achievement gap, and there isn't any. Not performance pay. Not Special licensing exemptions. Not all day kindergarten. Not any one thing. Doing well in school requires lots of work, lots of persistence. It isn't an overnight deal. Transforming the teaching profession or turning schools upside down, or creating charter schools, or vouchers, or getting rid of tenure, or any of your favorite solutions, none of these are going to do the job unless it triggers the countless hours of language development, reading, homework, and individual student determination that is the key to success.

Let me be clear again. This is not an apology for keeping things the same in public education. The delivery of public education requires significant restructuring if we are going to meet the goal of graduating all of our students to excellence. We need reform in the way that universities prepare teachers. We need reforms in the structure of the teaching profession, so that experienced teachers and teachers who regularly demonstrate success, can become leaders of teaching within their schools and school district, and those changes require compensation reform. But if we are going to make significant progress we need to be more sophisticated in selecting strategies that have yielded proven results. There are, in fact, a number of strategies that involve significant restructuring in the way that schools deliver instruction. Some of those call on us to reorganize the way in which schools are led, the way in which teachers are supervised and the way in which they deliver instruction. Compensation reform may well be a significant part of those reforms, but if compensation reform is going to be effective, it needs to be mindful of the research: if motivation is the goal, then we must motivate in ways that is valued and meaningful to the employees who are being motivated.

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