01 July 2011

"Do Incentives Shape Teacher Behavior Or Don’t They?"

ThinkProgress | Matthew Yglesias | Do Incentives Shape Teacher Behavior Or Don’t They

Here, again, I run into what I think is a huge consistency problem in the messaging coming out of teachers unions. Sometimes I hear from union-affiliated folks that it’s unfair to attribute differences in student learning to differences in teacher skill, because everyone knows that socioeconomic and home environment factors drive a lot of this. Other times I see the American Federation of Teachers building a messaging program around the idea that its members are Making A Difference Every Day. To me this leads to the obvious conclusion that while socioeconomic and home environment factors do drive a lot of student learning, teachers are also making a difference every day. And it makes a lot of sense to ask which teachers are making the most difference. The teachers who are in the top 20 percent of difference-makers are playing a vital role to the future of America, and we ought to pay them more money and make sure they don’t leave the profession. But the teachers who are in the bottom percent of difference-makers are doing us little good, and we should try to replace them with other people.
This is a very good post.

Mrs SB7 has been in the process of interviewing for teaching jobs, and it's caused me to notice another, related inconsistency.

I'm told that we need teacher tenure and pay based only on credentialism and years-in-service because we can't trust principals or department heads to make subjective decisions about who to reward and who to fire. But those are the same people making the decisions about who to hire in the first place. Why would we trust a principal to hire someone on their merits, but not trust the same principal retain someone strictly on their merits?  They're either trustworthy or they aren't.

Furthermore, we've built a system that assumes, explicitly, that these subjective hiring decisions are always correct since they can't be reversed.* That's a bad assumption to make about any decision making process. The operating assumption is that if it was the correct decision to employ a certain teacher when they started, then it must be the correct decision to continue to to employ them forever. After all, every day you don't sell you're making the implicit decision to buy. Even ignoring any dynamism in the situation, there's simply no way you can hire a hundred thousand teachers and be right about all of them. Some of the teachers you retain will be worse than some of the teachers you could hire but are forced not to for lack of open positions, but we've set up a situation that forces us to pretend that isn't so.

* True, there is typically a short period (two years in my county) before a teacher gets tenure. But I always hear — and I think reasonably and rightly — that it takes new teachers several years to get their legs under them, and it's unfair to evaluate them on their rookie performance. I happen to think that's exactly right, but if you put that belief together with a pre-tenure trial period of only two years, you end up in a situation where hiring decisions are set in stone and can not be reevaluated down the road.

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PS Yglesias' concluding paragraph strikes me as a little off:
My own take is that talk of incentives is massively overrated. Baseball teams don’t pay a premium to guys who hit lots of home runs in order to create “incentives” for people to hit home runs. If that worked, we’d all be major league sluggers! Baseball teams pay a premium to guys who lots of home runs because home run hitters are valuable contributors to baseball teams. Hitters who perform worse are less valuable. And hitters who perform very poorly are drummed out of MLB. That’s not really about incentives; it’s about attracting and retaining high performers to your organization.
Sports analogies are always going to be a little wonky, because the market for professional athletes is not like the market for other workers. For one, the you're operating way, way, way over on one side of the distribution of talent for all people who play baseball, and that leads to some weird effects we don't observe in a market for something like teachers where there are millions of paid participants. More importantly, a player is working for his team which is ostensibly competing with other teams, but he also works for an organized, legally sanctioned cartel in the form of the league, and that skews things a lot.

I also think it's weird to say that paying superstars to motivate others to want to be superstars is "not really about incentives." Why not? It's not about the incentives for the people getting the paychecks, perhaps, but it's still about incentives. I can't put my finger on a reference, but I remember seeing a very persuasive paper arguing that paying corporate executives truckloads of money isn't to motivate them to do a good job. Rather, it's to motivate all the people in the rungs under them to keep busting their butts to get the top job. That's still incentives.

I think there's a very different world view lurking under Yglesias' idea that paying home run hitters is just compensation for contributing to the team rather and not an incentive. I don't see payment as a moral reward for doing your part, I see it as a way to compensate people for trade, and in doing so provide the information signals necessary for the organization of interaction.

1 comment:

  1. This seems right to me and, while none of us is immune to inconsistency, when a contradiction is this obvious it seems to me that it's a clear symptom of ideology.

    Megan McArdle has an interesting discussion of teaching evaluation, unions, and tenure policy on bloggingheads: