Thursday, July 26, 2012

A New Alternative to Merit Pay

In keeping with current trends, a writer for the Atlantic, who is not an educator, wrote about an idea hatched by a bunch of professors (who teach students who want to be in attendance) to increase teacher performance.

In short, the idea is this: Merit pay doesn't work, so let's punish teachers who don't "perform" (i.e., get the test scores the government wants) by giving them incentives at the beginning of the year and taking them back if students don't perform on standardized tests.

You can see how brilliant this is. The study, run by a co-author of Freakonomics and others, offered teachers either $8000 up front, or $4000 up front with the promise of more money if their students excelled and (here's the brilliant part) a promise that the 4k would have to be paid back if the students didn't do as well as hoped. The idea is that teachers would respond better to the fear of losing money than they would to merit pay. This is called "loss aversion". The authors claim this will work based upon their exhaustive study of a whopping 150 teachers whom they claim did better when threatened with the loss of income. The study is referenced in the article, but unfortunately the link leads not to the promised study, but a NY Times article on layoffs. One can assume that the author lost some pay for that boneheaded move.

Of course, if this works, loss aversion could be the new thing in ed reform. Why stop at money, though? Sure, teachers would hate losing salary, but bigger incentives would surely lead to bigger increases. Perhaps we should start lopping off the fingers of teachers who do poorly on standardized exams. Score in the upper quartile, and you get to keep your digits. Scoring in the middle would cost you, let's say, a pinky. The bottom quartile could lose a thumb or two (if I recall, this type of loss aversion has been successful in getting gamblers to repay their debts, as well). Not only would this incentivize teachers to work harder, but it would serve the dual purpose of giving parents a way to judge the effectiveness of teachers. ("What do you mean, Johnny, that everyone calls Mr. Talk 'Lefty'"?)

Of course, NYC and the UFT are already ahead of the curve. They're working on implementing a new "loss aversion" system based upon the value-added methodology. In this, if you score poorly for two consecutive years, you will lose not 4000 dollars, but your career, your salary, and a good portion of whatever pension you might have earned over decades of service.

In many ways, losing fingers seems like quite the bargain in comparison, so I hope we implement that instead. But even if we do, I'll resign before I lose all my fingers. I want to make sure I keep at least one to give to the mayor, Michael Mulgrew, and that idiot from Freakonomics.