Performance pay will kill our schools

Ever since the board of the Houston Independent School District voted to use standardized test scores to reward and punish teachers, I’ve been wrapped in a dark, dark funk.

I guess I can’t really blame HISD.  After all, they’re just one of many educational organizations (see here, here and here) influenced by states that are scrambling to grab some of the billions of dollars made available to schools through Race to the Top grants—which must all include redesigned teacher compensation and evaluation plans.

Obama made ‘em do it.

Now, I’ve got a billion complaints with any state and/or district that ties teacher compensation to standardized test scores—and I’ve written about them more than once.  My greatest concern, though, has always been the impact that an undue emphasis on testing will have on the instructional practices in our classrooms.

I feel like a bit of an expert, considering that I’ve spent the past 16 years teaching a tested subject to sixth graders.  I’m almost ashamed of the way that my instruction has changed over time in response to testing pressures.  I’ve gone from being a guy whose classroom was defined by higher level learning opportunities—Socratic seminars, independent studies, open-ended questions—to a guy who follows a set of scripted lessons pretty closely.

Why did I buckle?  Because each year, I’m given an “effectiveness index,” a metric that our district generates that allows comparisons between the test scores of students in different classes across buildings.  While my effectiveness index doesn’t stink—my students are making expected growth—it has been the lowest on the hallway for as long as I can remember.

The tension between what I’m actually doing in my classroom and what I think I should be doing in my classroom has gotten to be almost unbearable.  I don’t believe that I’m preparing my students to be successful in a world driven by innovation and creativity, but the ONLY tangible indicator of my performance—standardized test scores—says that my students are not as “accomplished” as students in other classrooms in our school and district.

If I worked in Houston, they’d be showing me the door!

What makes me laugh is that while judging teachers based on standardized test scores is seen as a long-needed innovation in education, business leaders are starting to recognize that a never-ending focus on measurable results can have disastrous consequences.

Take Roger Martin of the Harvard Business Review who recently argued that number-crunching locks businesses into the prisons of the past:

Analyzing the past, crunching the existing numbers to produce the future can do nothing more than extrapolate the future from the past. So if you stick to measuring what you can already measure, you cannot create a future that is different than the past.

For that to work out at all well for any institution making its decisions on that extrapolation, the future needs to be remarkably similar to the past — or bad things start to happen. If an institution is all geared up for a future that is like the past and the future changes radically, then the institution becomes an anachronism, like a Motorola or GM.

Beautiful, isn’t it?  Comparing our schools to Motorola or GM might actually wake up Crazy Bill Sanders and his “let’s reward teachers based on test scores” crowd, considering how miserably those two organizations failed at adapting to a rapidly changing future.

Few would argue that the future of schooling is going to be “remarkably similar” to the past, so making important decisions about teacher evaluation and compensation based on nothing more than numbers is a failed policy that will encourage antiquated instructional practices.  We’lI end up with a heaping cheeseload of students that can pass standardized tests, but will those same students be ready to work in a world that values divergent thinking?

Martin goes on to propose a new frame of thought that must find its way into today’s businesses.  He writes:

We need to get away from all those old sayings about measurement and management, and in that spirit I’d like to propose a new wisdom: “If you can’t imagine it, you will never create it.” The future is about imagination, not measurement. To imagine a future, one has to look beyond the measurable variables, beyond what can be proven with past data.

What I wouldn’t give to work in a world that rewarded teachers for innovative attempts to imagine and to create new learning environments.  I’d have my kids solving complex, open-ended problems with one another.  We’d be working to find solutions to global challenges with peers on other continents.  Independent projects focused on areas of deep personal interest would serve as the vehicle for teaching basic skills.

Instead, I’ll probably remain stuck in a backwards professional culture convinced by nothing more than numbers for the rest of my career.  The momentum to reward or punish teachers and schools is just too great for states to resist, isn’t it?

The best part of the“we gotta punish ‘em to get ‘em to work harder” culture is that science has shown time and again that IT JUST WON’T WORK—for teachers or for students—a fact that Daniel Pink pointed out in a recent interview with the Public School Insights blog.

Pink wrote:

There is 40 years of science that says that for complex, conceptual, creative tasks—the sort of things that most white-collar workers are doing now that the more simple routine work can be offshore or automated—carrot and stick motivators don’t work. Or I should say they rarely work, and they often do harm. And this is not even close in the field of science.

So what you have now is this gap between what science knows about motivation—which is that carrot and stick motivators work in a narrow band of circumstances and that if you really want high-performance on more creative conceptual tasks you have to have a different operating system built more on our internal drive do interesting things and to do something that matters.

Imagine that:  One of the most noted thinkers in the world today believes that education—which is perhaps the MOST complex, conceptual and creative task—might actually be HARMED by the kinds of teacher evaluation plans that states are churning out like too much sour butter in their race to the top.

Pink goes on to address pay for performance plans directly:

Truth be told, until I looked at the research—and there is really 40 years of research on the science of motivation—I actually thought performance pay for teachers was a good idea. I was for it. Then I read the science, and I said, “No, I am not for this.” Because what is pretty clear is that it is a very problematic thing to get right…

The way that money is most effective as a motivator is to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they are not focused on money, but they are focused on doing their job well. My experience has been that 85% of teachers out there just want teach and do right by kids. If you raise their base salaries and give them some autonomy, they’ll do that.

If you also give either building principals or superintendents the ability to get rid of—and I am just estimating here—the 10% or 15% of teachers, like the 10% or 15% of any profession, who are duds, I think that is a simpler solution. It is not perfect, but it has far less collateral damage than tying [pay] to standardized test scores or doing these elaborate performance measurements.

Can I get an AMEN from the choir, please?  And can I get it before we stumble down yet another wrong path that will leave our schools open for still more criticism and scorn?

Businesses are starting to turn away from performance pay, committed to creating the kinds of intrinsically motivating work environments that attract the most accomplished employees, produce the kinds of tangible results that matter in knowledge-driven professions, and allow for rapid adaptation in an ever-changing world.

When will schools do the same?