Friday, 27 May 2011

The worrying durability of crank ideas

There are some ideas which should put their proponents beyond the bounds of sensible policy debate forevermore. The best example is supply side economics (encapsulated by the Laffer curve and the foundation stone of Reagan’s ‘voodoo economics’): the proposition that in each and every circumstance, tax cuts always pay for themselves and therefore do not need to be offset by spending cuts. There is no evidence in support of this proposition and libraries full of evidence to the contrary.  Anyone subscribing to supply-side economics – step forward the Institute of Directors, Taxpayers Alliance and most of the Tory party! – should be summarily banished from any forum from which they might, just might, influence public policy in Scotland.

Another such idea, one that resurfaced just this week in COSLA’s shameless submission to the McCormac review, that should be labelled ‘CRANK’ and quickly consigned to the policy dustbin is performance related pay for teachers. This exhibits all the characteristics of a classic zombie idea: it is murdered time and time again by the sheer weight of evidence rallied against it but somehow still manages to get stagger back to its feet. How interesting that it is COSLA offering the helping hand.

Just over two years ago, one of Scotland’s most renowned entrepreneurs was to be found on the front page of the Sunday Herald pontificating (through a ‘spokesman’ of course) on the merits of introducing performance related pay into the Scottish education system. What sound evidential basis underpinned this strident call? Er, well…’everywhere else in the world, from commerce to government is subject to incentivisation. Why not teaching?’

Convinced? Me neither. Did the entrepreneur stop to consider where performance related pay actually works and where it fails or was it a case of ‘it exists therefore it must work’? Did he even think about the assumptions underlying his case? Of course, he didn’t – he is extremely wealthy and therefore indulged; even when spouting demonstrable nonsense. We in the trade union movement are however forced by prevailing orthodoxy to be somewhat more rigorous; so let’s provide COSLA and our buccaneering entrepreneur with the benefit of our hard work.

As with most management issues – and this is fundamentally a management issue – it makes sense to turn to the doyens of evidence based management, Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton. What they have to say on this might surprise some people:

Merit pay for teachers is an idea that is almost 100 years old and has been subject to much research’. Wow. However, ‘before revealing the results of all that research…we can illustrate how you can figure out if merit pay will or won’t work, and the conditions under which it will or won’t, simply by listing the assumptions inherent in virtually all teacher pay-for–performance plans’. Shockeroonie!  The Profs are asking us to think about a situation logically and suggesting that the process might reveal some important truths! Hard taskmasters these boys.

Anyway, what are the assumptions to which they refer (quoting at length here which  always makes me a bit uncomfortable – buy the profs’ books people! Money well spent I can assure you):

  • Teacher motivation is a, perhaps the, determinant of student learning and achievement. (Because merit pay is focused on teachers and administrators – not, for instance, on parents or even students – the presumption must be that teachers and other school personnel are the primary causal agents in learning);

  • Learning can be measured reliably and accurately by a test given once a year, or less (success, as defined by these plans, is almost always assessed by standardised test scores).

  • Teachers are motivated largely, or at least significantly, by financial incentives; so pay for performance will induce greater and more effective effort.

  • Teaching is a solo activity – there is little interdependence with others in the school. Many plans reward only individual teachers; there is no incentive to cooperate or share with others; and some plans reward teachers for hoarding knowledge in a competition with peers.

See anything wrong with these assumptions? The profs list a few rather obvious problems:

  • Is teaching likely to be a career choice for those motivated primarily by financial reward? Really?
  • How important is teacher motivation to student achievement? Some other factors likely to exert not inconsiderable influence on achievement include: teacher skill (unaffected by merit pay), parental involvement, the child/student’s home environment, the quality of facilities and resources, parental education and income and so on.
  • Is peer support and learning from colleagues important in affecting teacher performance? If so, will incentive structures which necessarily undermine cooperative working harm the quality of teaching? Think about it.
  • What are the consequences of measuring and rewarding student performance on a set of standardised tests?

As the Profs conclude, ‘You don’t have to read the evidence from literally decades of research to spot the problems with merit pay for schoolteachers. That evidence shows that merit pay plans seldom last longer than five years and that merit pay consistently fails to improve student performance. The very logic of merit pay for teachers suggests that it won’t do what it is intended to do, or do it very well. Moreover, the signal that all that matters is student test scores and the provision of rewards for improving those scores provides an incentive for some teachers to game the system’ (i.e. it provides a very strong incentive to cheat. Research into the effectiveness of merit pay systems led directly to the dismissal of several principals and teachers in Chicago).

The profs argue that the use of financial incentives is a subject filled with ideology and belief – and that many of those beliefs have little or no evidence to support them. They note that many of the best performing companies have relatively flat pay distributions – ‘by sending the signal that performance is a collective, not just an individual, endeavour, those companies are more likely to induce thought, creativity and effort on the part of their people’. Merit pay is likely to work only where the tasks are readily learned and have little or no interdependence with other employees, where it is easy to measure and monitor quality and where employee goals are unambiguous and one-dimensional. The classic case of a merit pay system that worked was Ed Lazear’s study of Safelite Glass in Columbus, Ohio – installers of automobile glass. It is difficult to imagine an enterprise further removed from the education of our young people.

Before sounding off about matters on which they are hopelessly ignorant, perhaps COSLA and our entrepreneur friend should have interrogated both the intellectual foundations and real world successes of performance related pay. The story revealed would be somewhat different to the oh-so-predictable conclusion that performance related pay systems should be inflicted on the education system. In most modern workplaces, characterised by complexity and high levels of interdependence, there is no evidence to show that performance related pay achieves anything beyond incentivising bankers to disguise risk as value creation. On the contrary, research on motivation at work emphatically confirms the 50 year old dictum of psychologist Frederick Herzburg: if you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do.

And isn’t it interesting that those who continually preach austerity for the public sector would happily saddle the education system with the enormous transaction costs of designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating a performance related pay system of extremely dubious benefit.

We desperately require a new way of dealing with policy cranks in Scotland. You believe in the Laffer Curve? OK, then go away silly person and never return. You are embarrassingly ignorant -  and we do not allow embarrassingly ignorant people anywhere near public policy. You believe in performance related pay for teachers? Then you have clearly not taken the time to consider even the basic logic of your argument. You are lazy and dangerous. Go away. Read a book. And leave policy development to those with a concentration span of more than 10 seconds.

Stephen Boyd - STUC

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