Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Fixing performance pay

Derek Neal, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago makes an interesting argument about the poor performance of performance pay for teachers:
"Many accountability and performance pay systems employ test scores from assessment systems that produce information used not only to determine rewards and punishments for educators, but also to inform the public about progress in student learning," Neal writes in the paper, "The Design of Performance Pay in Education."

These testing systems make it easy, in theory, for policymakers to obtain consistent measures of student and teacher performance over time. But Neal argues that the same testing regimes also make it easy, in practice, for educators to game incentive systems by coaching students for exams rather than teaching them to master subject matter.

"As long as education authorities keep trying to accomplish both of these tasks (measurement and incentive provisions) with one set of assessments, they will continue to fail at both tasks," he adds in the paper, which was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research and is a chapter in the upcoming Handbook of Economics of Education.


Separate assessment systems that involve no stakes for teachers, and thus no incentives for manipulation, should be used to produce measures of student performance over time, Neal contends. This two-system approach would discourage excessive "teaching to the test."

"The designers of assessment-based incentive schemes must take seriously the challenge of designing a series of assessments such that the best response of educators is not to coach, but to teach in ways that build true mastering," Neal said.
I'm not sure I'm in full agreement here. For one thing, the problems with our current methods for evaluating student progress are deeply flawed even when not asked to do double duty. Second, in my experience, most of the pressure to inflate scores comes from above. As long as test scores affect the fortunes of administrators, the less ethical superintendents and principals will find a way to influence teachers (even without the option of dismissal, a principal can make a teacher's life very tough).

Just to be clear, almost all of the administrators I've worked have been dedicated and ethical but I can think of at least one guy, two time zones and two decades from here and now, who managed to pressure a number of tenured but spineless teachers into spending weeks doing nothing but prepping for standardized tests.

What we need is a more comprehensive and better thought out system for measuring student progress.

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