You Keep Using That Word Incentive. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

The Boston teacher’s union is blocking an incentive bonus for exceptional teachers sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Exxon Mobil foundations unless the bonuses are distributed equally among all teachers, good, bad, and average.

Last July in Reason, I wrote about Massachusetts’ latest cunning plan to stop failing schools: come up with a new word for failure.

(Thanks to Chris Berez for the link.)

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45 Responses to “You Keep Using That Word Incentive. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means”

  1. #1 |  Chris M. | 

    Hmm… Everyone gets a trophy. That sounds strangely familiar…

    From the Boston Globe, 2006:

    “What happens when everyone’s a winner?”

    http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2006/02/23/what_happens_when_everyones_a_winner/

    Quote: “‘We have to take teachable moments to reach kids and explain that there are going to be setbacks and losses, and to be able to cope with that,” said Leonard Zaichkowsky, a Boston University professor and director of its sport and exercise psychology training program, shared by BU’s schools of education and medicine.

    So, little kids playing basketball should learn how to cope with failure, but teachers should get a Warm Fuzzy just for playing?

  2. #2 |  ClassAction | 

    All this focus on fiddling around the edges of the public education system misses the broader point: there’s absolutely no reason to lock children into a rigid educational system for 200+ days a year at 8 hours a day where they learn slightly refined versions of the same thing for 12+ years. It is a massive, stultifying waste of energy and human creativity, and worst of all, it actually teaches most children that learning is boring and not worth their time.

    I would encourage everyone that hasn’t to check out John Taylor Gatto, particularly “The Underground History of American Education” and “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.”

  3. #3 |  Aresen | 

    “There are no bad boys teachers.”

    And, if you believe that, I have a bridge for sale.

  4. #4 |  Dave Krueger | 

    The Boston teacher’s union is blocking an incentive bonus for exceptional teachers sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Exxon Mobil foundations unless the bonuses are distributed equally among all teachers, good, bad, and average.

    LMAO!

    I don’t think there’s another outfit on the planet that is as opposed to the idea of pay based on performance as is the teachers’ unions. To hear them talk about it, you’d think it had never been tried before and is doomed to certain failure. This is proof that if you repeat the same thing over and over, people will believe it no matter how absolutely preposterous it is.

    My wife is a teacher and, from what I gather, when you say “performance pay” to a teacher, what she hears is pay based on student test scores. If performance pay is going to be based on test scores, then I can almost sympathize with them. My pay is based on my performance as evaluated by my employer. There are no test scores involved. There is only the assessment of what my contribution is toward satisfying customers. Yes, personalities and politics can interfere, but that will be true in every system.

    It’s a sad state of affairs that the public education industry has become so divorced from common sense and the marketplace that business principles are utterly foreign to them.

    When it comes to the history of destruction wrought by unions on the public, the Teamsters Union doesn’t even register as a blip on the chart next to the NEA. They, as an organization, are despicable parasites and if there were ever a law that would really be “for the children”, it would be one that repeals every previous law catering to unions.

  5. #5 |  Jeff | 

    I side with the teachers on this….at least until someone shows me a valid way of measuring whether a teacher is good, better, best. How do you control for the many variables in student abilities, classroom size, resources, etc. so as to make a scientifically valid assessment of teaching skills?? I have not seen it yet.

  6. #6 |  Windypundit | 

    You do the best you can with the data you have, same as every other employer in the world.

  7. #7 |  phlinn | 

    The article itself may be misleading since it claims ‘both good and bad’ at one point then later admits “…he backs the incentive program – so long as the bonus goes to all teachers, not just AP instructors”. In that light, it’s at least comprehensible in light of the same thinking that says math teachers are paid the same as english instructors and pre-school teachers.

  8. #8 |  Taktix® | 

    What better way to block something that to stuff it into the “ridiculously absurd” box…

  9. #9 |  Aresen | 

    Jeff @ 12:49

    I upticked because you do have a point. However, anyone with any experience in the school system knows that there are teachers who are lousy at their job.

    The teachers’ unions have consistently fought against any form of evaluation, the only graduatiions in pay being based on seniority and credentials (of dubious value.) I do not think test scores are a good measure, but the teachers’ unions are opposed to ANY measure.

  10. #10 |  Jay | 

    @Jeff: According to the article, they have a pretty good way of determining who the good teachers are… They’re providing the bonus to teachers at a set amount of cash per student that passes the AP test. Since the teachers in the running are all teaching the same sort of class, and the students that are in the program are likely of similar academic ability (or they wouldn’t be in an AP class at all, much less take the test), it seems like a pretty fair program. It doesn’t offer money to non-AP class teachers…but it’s not public money.

  11. #11 |  Michael Chaney | 

    From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. Equal outcomes just guarantees success…

  12. #12 |  BamBam | 

    #2, also a new book called Government Schools Are Bad for Your Kids: What You Need to Know

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0974925322/theagitator-20/

    Need to read various viewpoints to discern the truth. However, it sure seems that government schools are trash and aren’t meant to truly encourage learning and let creativity and intelligence blossom.

  13. #13 |  Kyle | 

    I doesn’t seem completely unreasonable to question why these bonuses would only be available to AP teachers. At least in my high school, there was little correlation between being a good/educated/successful teacher and being an AP teacher. AP teachers also probably have more talented kids to work with.

    Why couldn’t the bonuses be constructed so that they reward increased performance at all levels, not just the AP level?

  14. #14 |  BamBam | 

    Quotes from cops: seizing assets, sometimes with no charges filed, sometimes with fairy tale charges, is a way to supplement your budget because you have to come up with the money somehow.

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/blog/lewrw/archives/43108.html

    The brazeness by which The System operates is a big middle finger F U, as if to say “we will admit what we are doing and why, and you will not be able to do anything about it.” It’s illegal anyway, whatever happened to due process 5th Amendment?

  15. #15 |  MikeZ | 

    The idea of wanting incentive bonuses distributed equally to all teachers is ludicris. However I could see issues with the current plan depending on the school size.

    In my H.S. there was only a single teacher who taught A.P. English. The other 2 Senior English Teachers would automatically get the shaft. Stepping back further doesn’t the number of students taking A.P. English depend heavily on the number of students who did well in 11th grade english?

    Now perhaps this school is different in that all English teachers teach all instruction levels of HS english and thus all have an opportunity for the bonus but that seems unusual. If this is the case this bonus system sounds good as is.

    Still I’d say keep the bonus in place and try to find more metrics for evaluating the other teachers who don’t teach A.P.

  16. #16 |  Chris Berez | 

    Thanks, Radley.

    It really is amazing how terrified unions are of letting people be judged on performance. When it comes down to it, this really isn’t all that different from the union practice of putting seniority before performance and/or qualifications.

    Maybe the Boston teachers’ union can take a page from NY and just have their bad teachers sit in a room and get paid to do nothing.

    I just hope that one of these days, people actually start to learn from stories like these and realize that the problem with public education is not the never-ending pleas for more money but rather the unions and their asinine policies dragging everyone down with them.

  17. #17 |  Mike T | 

    Yet another reason why government employees should not be allowed to collectively bargain or conduct union business on any government time or property.

  18. #18 |  Guido | 

    I would agree with the above statements about unions being a big part of the problem. Here in California I’m familiar with a person who teaches from time. They actually never completed college so they technically aren’t qualified. That little detail didn’t stop them from lying on their applications. This particular “teacher” had/has a penchant for staying out late and partying and thus missing school in the morning on many an occasion. When their superior questioned them on this lack of professionalism, this person simply complained that the superior “had it out for me.” What was the result? “Hey thanks for your valuable teaching service. And although we have discovered that you not only have had multiple disciplinary write ups against you. You have also lied on your application. This is a very serious matter. For this we have decided to move you to another school.” Problem solved.

  19. #19 |  PJ Doland | 

    That bonus system sounds questionable.

    It only pays a bonus on AP test performance. Many of these teachers probably also teach other classes, and this type of incentive sounds like it would be likely to just shift lesson-planning resources from one group of lower-performing students to an already high-performing group.

    Also, I think it’s ethically questionable for outside groups to be paying bonuses to public employees. Would you want MADD paying bonuses to police for their number of DUI arrests?

  20. #20 |  MassHole | 

    My wife is a high school English teacher, so I have a bit of insight into this…

    – Bonus for everyone is stupid.

    – Unions make bad teachers hard to fire. It also makes it hard for psycho parents and poor administration to fire good teachers. Catch 22.

    - If you want your teachers pay based on test scores, then you have teachers that will only teach the kids to regurgitate for the test. While this may work in math and science, it will not work for subjects such as History or English where you want to kid to learn to think, not regurgitate.

    – You cannot standardize classrooms. Most schools have moved away from “tracking” of students which was popular in the 70′s and 80′s. My wife has high functioning downs syndrome kids in the same class with cognitively normal but unmotivated kids. The downs kids will have an “aid” which is basically a $15k / year babysitter. Everyone loses in this instance. Keep in mind this isn’t the teacher s union mandating this situation, it’s the administration trying to justify their PHD.

    – Finally, the most important issue is PARENTING. If you don’t read to your kid at home, then don’t bother blaming it on the teacher when they’re the only kid in 2nd grade that can’t read. The teacher cannot make the kid do their homework or study for the test or go to bed at a reasonable hour or stop them from eating candy and coke for lunch.

  21. #21 |  Sam | 

    I think this has already been said, but I don’t think the unionhead was saying that all teachers deserve the money. I think he was saying the money should be disbursed for improved student performance, regardless of whether the teacher is teaching AP students or otherwise.

    Is this money specifically targeted only toward AP teachers? Or were AP classes the proposed mechanism of establishing disbursement?

  22. #22 |  Fluffy | 

    Let’s give the union argument the most charitable reading possible:

    “If children succeed on a test administered while they’re in 12th grade, it’s likely that their success has been influenced by every teacher they’ve ever had, and it’s therefore unfair to single out their 12th grade AP teachers and give them all the credit for the student’s success.”

    I’m not saying I agree with that, but it’s at least somewhere in the ballpark of a reasonable argument.

    The simple fact of the matter is that you can’t really introduce market discipline into education by trying to “fake it” by giving teachers “merit pay”. The marketing unit for education is the school. The only way to introduce market discipline is to get rid of public schools. That way consumers can make their own judgments regarding what constitutes school success and reward those schools directly by giving them business. Half measures like “merit pay” won’t accomplish the goal, for all of the measurement reasons raised here. [If my teachers got merit pay based on my test scores, most of my teachers would have gotten bonuses for no effort based on the fact that I was essentially randomly assigned to their class. Since teachers don't have to compete for students but have them simply assigned to them, merit pay based on test scores is kind of a joke for that reason alone.]

  23. #23 |  SJE | 

    Of course as long as Gates and Exxon don’t play along, this could be a great teachable moment. The union is telling good teachers that they cannot have the big golden carrot unless they are willing to share it with their useless colleagues. Way to go union: telling your members they cannot recieve a prize that costs nothing to the school system and other teachers. You will see the membership fracture, which is a good thing, IMO.

  24. #24 |  Cynical in CA | 

    Fuck ‘em. You belong to union, you get what you deserve.

  25. #25 |  Cynical in CA | 

    And what Fluffy said.

  26. #26 |  Zargon | 

    #20
    If you want your teachers pay based on test scores, then you have teachers that will only teach the kids to regurgitate for the test. While this may work in math and science, it will not work for subjects such as History or English where you want to kid to learn to think, not regurgitate.

    Of all those categories I’d like kids to learn to actually think in, it’s science, by a landslide. Having a class on the history of science and calling it a science class is a cruel joke. A science class ought to be training students in the discipline of accurately separating truth from falsehood. A skill all too lacking nowadays.

  27. #27 |  Samsam | 

    AP testing is uniform and nation-wide; this gives it some credibility as a measurement device.

    If you want to measure the quality of a teacher, there is simply no cheap and easy and objective way to do it. I would suggest a combination of three factors.

    1) Standardized test results
    problem: teach to the test.
    2) Parent and teacher comments
    problem: bribery, financial and grades
    3) Any teacher wanting to be considered for a bonus must submit lesson plans for evaluation, and an observer must drop in occasionally to observe how well the lesson plans are delivered. The observer would note how well the teacher engages the students, whether the teacher actually knows that days material in depth (or are they just reading the book). Also, does the teacher use the entire block of time effectively.A teacher must be scrutinized by different observers to avoid bias. Problem: it isn’t objective.

    Finally, a committee would have to evaluate the results and pick winners. It would be far from perfect, but I think it better than nothing.

  28. #28 |  Samsam | 

    Our society also needs to decide what it wants teachers to do in the classroom. Do we want folks that know and love their subject, and are good at conveying information? Or do we want disciplinarians and mediators? Yeah, it’s great when you find someone who can do it all, but that’s rare.

    When I was a kid, teachers sent troublemakers out of the room so they didn’t impair the education of the rest of the kids. Today, in many Virginia schools, there is no place to send the kids; the principal’s office refuses to deal with them. So, the teachers are stuck with unruly kids in the classroom and everybody loses. By separating the education function from the discipline function, we would get much better education. That, of course, would require several staff positions and would cost money.

    The point really is on topic: if teachers could concentrate on teaching, we would have better teachers. I have tutored chemistry and physics students with great success. I would love to teach, but I would never do so in the environment most schools provide.

  29. #29 |  Fluffy | 

    If you want to measure the quality of a teacher, there is simply no cheap and easy and objective way to do it.

    If public schools did not exist, this would actually be very easy to do.

    A good school would be one that could attract and retain parents and students as customers. A bad school would be one that could not.

    A good teacher would be one that could convince a good school to hire them, and that could keep a job at a good school once they had one. A bad teacher would be one who could not.

    Cheap, easy and objective. The way we do it for every other occupation.

  30. #30 |  Laughingdog | 

    On one hand, I do agree with many here that our public school system is broken. However, I also believe, like some here, that this proposed incentive system is pretty unfair.

    First, what about other more talented teachers that don’t happen to teach AP courses. Hell, as someone pointed out earlier, some of those lower grade high school teachers may have more to do with those kids passing AP tests than their AP teachers. I finished high school with enough AP tests passed to avoid over 20 credits of college classes. But I’d only rate half of those AP teachers as some of the best teachers I had in high school.

    Second, as soon as you implement a system where teachers receive bonuses based on standardized testing scores, it’s not that hard for higher ups in the school to stack the classes to benefit the teachers they like. Put all of the brightest kids in with one teacher, and that teacher looks fantastic, even if the kids really didn’t learn anything new that year because that teacher was horrible.

  31. #31 |  Laughingdog | 

    I’m with Fluffy (post #29). If you let parents choose where they send their kids, any arbitrary ratings become pointless. Then teachers keep their jobs the same way the rest of us do. Work hard enough to keep your company/school from losing customers/students. If you can’t keep customers, they downsize, and the poor performers are out of a job.

  32. #32 |  Chris in AL | 

    “If children succeed on a test administered while they’re in 12th grade, it’s likely that their success has been influenced by every teacher they’ve ever had, and it’s therefore unfair to single out their 12th grade AP teachers and give them all the credit for the student’s success.”

    Of course, that can be extrapolated out to include the teacher’s influence in every success you have in life ever.

    If my company pays me a bonus based upon how my team performed this year, that performance was influenced by every boss I’ve ever had, and prior to that, by every teacher I ever had. Similarly, my team’s ability to accomplish what I directed reflects me as a boss, all their previous bosses and all their teachers.

    The long and the short of it is, none of those people owe me any money if I fail to earn the bonus, though clearly they all equally ‘influenced’ that failure.

    Teacher’s don’t want to be held accountable for all the losers that pass through the schools, but they want props for the few winners. Perhaps it is the student as an individual that either accomplishes much or very little and it is all really just a reflection of them, not the teachers, when they do so.

    The foundation should just rescind the bonus. Or give it to the most accomplished students instead.

  33. #33 |  bobzbob | 

    “for exceptional teachers”-not. Actually the bonus is paid out to teachers who’s students pass an AP exam. This isn’t a measure of the quality of the teacher, but the teachers ability to get the top tier students in their classes. You can bet that the best students who would breeze through the exams get NO attention, as would those who have no chance, only a few marginal students on the cusp will get attention – probably to the detriment of everyone else in the classroom. This kind “incentive” doesn’t measure the actual quality or success of the teacher.

  34. #34 |  djm | 

    I can certainly appreciate the problems with implementing a fair determination for merit pay. Are good test results a result of stronger students or better teaching? And are they teaching broadly or simply to the test? You can`t measure that the same way you measure productivity growth, or sales figues, or a return on a portfolio.

    It would seem to me that merit would be a result of “value added,” as in how much the teacher left the students better off as opposed to what a mediocre, or average, teacher would have done. I don`t know how exactly to measure this, but it would seem that any sensible plan to implement merit pay would start from this point.

    My problem with the union here is not that they are opposed to the current structure of incentive bonuses. It is that they are opposed to the PRINCIPLE of incentive bonuses. They want their members, and hence their compensation, to be uniform (and mediocre) because outperformers arent wanted. Anyone who has ever excelled at a unionized job has felt this effect – other workers giving you the evil eye, or the union steward telling you to take it easy.

  35. #35 |  PersonFromPorlock | 

    I have to second ClassAction’s comment (#2). IIRC, there was a study done years ago that suggested that average ten year-olds could learn everything taught in the first five grades in a couple of months. Of course, any attempt to teach that way would entirely defeat grade school’s primary purpose of baby-sitting.

  36. #36 |  Dave Krueger | 

    It’s only difficult to come up with a fair system of merit pay because the school system has completely eradicated all the market forces that give direction to a supplier. The quality of the product delivered plays no role in determining how the product is produced. It’s as if the entire system is designed to suit the union and the students are merely a justification for the existence of the system.

    One thing that I find particularly mind boggling is the idea that the union is considered an authority on effective education and what’s best for the students. That’s like trusting foxes as an authority on what’s best for chickens or cops as an authority on what’s best for the accused.

  37. #37 |  Pig Face | 

    Nice reference to Black Adder.

  38. #38 |  V-Man | 

    “Anyone who has ever excelled at a unionized job has felt this effect – other workers giving you the evil eye, or the union steward telling you to take it easy.”

    Entirely true. I worked in a unionized paper mill when I was a student, and the regular employees kept telling us to slow down. Unlike them, we didn’t know if we’d be called again the week after (we were temp workers).

    The union was so strong there that guys were sleeping on the job in plain view of everyone. Dealing with the union grievance was more expensive than just letting them sleep and hiring a temp to make up for the lost work.

    (Paper mill closed a few years ago, BTW.)

  39. #39 |  ChrisD | 

    They almost act like people wouldn’t need unions if they were empirically tested and rewarded for good performance. :)

  40. #40 |  ChrisD | 

    They should just test kids at the beginning of the year, convert this into a z-score (difference from mean in standard deviation terms) and do the same again at the end of the year. Teachers whose students had the greatest z-score gains should be rewarded.

  41. #41 |  PeeDub | 

    #26

    #20
    If you want your teachers pay based on test scores, then you have teachers that will only teach the kids to regurgitate for the test. While this may work in math and science, it will not work for subjects such as History or English where you want to kid to learn to think, not regurgitate.

    Of all those categories I’d like kids to learn to actually think in, it’s science, by a landslide. Having a class on the history of science and calling it a science class is a cruel joke. A science class ought to be training students in the discipline of accurately separating truth from falsehood. A skill all too lacking nowadays.

    Big, BIG, amen. Having taught seniors in science and math, it’s *amazing* how many have not been taught the ability to critically think, as opposed to simply learning “facts”. Thank you! to all the math teachers that made me do word problems and to all the science teachers that asked me, “what do *you* think?”

  42. #42 |  Bill | 

    I think everyone is missing the point. If someone, in the case the Gates foundation, wants to spend thier money in a way that they think will work whose business is it? They aren’t taking money aways from any other teacher, they’re merely giving extra to teachers that meet thier criteria. Does the union also regulate the gifts that teachers recieve from thier students at Christmas to make sure one teacher doesn’t get more?

  43. #43 |  dsmallwood | 

    everyone is missing the point. Radley snuck in a Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya quote. THAT’s brillance.

    what’s wrong with you people?!? you don’t by any chance happen to have six fingers on your right hands do you?

  44. #44 |  Matt D | 

    Eh. I think the union’s position on this isn’t nearly as objectionable as you make it out to be. If a student passes the AP test their senior year, are we really to assume that only instruction that had any bearing on that result occurred in that very year? I passed the AP english test (with a lovely score, natch) and while I liked my AP english teacher well enough I don’t think that one class was the deciding factor.

    Anyway, AP students are generally the bright overachievers with big futures ahead of them (I’m an exception, it seems) and plenty of incentives to do well in class and take/pass the AP test. So, let’s be clear that this isn’t a program which rewards “exceptional” teachers so much as it is a program that rewards whichever teachers happen to be teaching AP-level classes. If you’re an awesome teacher working with lower-level students you’re not going to get anything, while even a mediocre AP teacher is virtually assured a bonus, since many of their students would pass the AP exam regardless. Indeed, I have little trouble imagining that were it the union promoting this sort of compensation scheme, folks here would be highlighting that very fact and claiming this is just a giveaway to senior teachers.

    I mean, I’ll grant the point that it’s private money, but I think you can make a good argument that once the school district starts playing along by distributing it or releasing test scores to a private foundation, it becomes part of the overall compensation package.

  45. #45 |  MassHole | 

    You killed my father. Prepare to die.

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