Let the Principals Decide

E.D. Kain offers one objection to performance pay:

There are obviously cases where you’ve got an exceptional teacher. Everyone knows they’re great. The students love them. The parents love them. Other teachers love them. And then there are cases where teachers are obviously bad. They’re disliked, have terrible results, etc. But I’d say most of the time the situation is much, much more difficult – most teachers are hard to quantify. It’s hard for many reasons, including who their students are, where their school is, how the funding is at that school, how the teachers at the school work together, who the principal is, and so on and so forth. So the government wants to quantify the performance (for whatever reason, not currently teacher pay, though) and the only way to do that is to use standardized tests, graduation rates, and future success of students.

Even a system that merely allowed us to pay the obviously good teachers more, and to fire the obviously bad teachers, would be a significant improvement. The obviously bad teachers exact a tremendously high cost on students, and reduce the morale of everyone else at a school.

But what about the bulk of teachers who are neither obviously exceptional nor atrocious? How can merit pay or performance pay work if there isn’t any obvious way to quantify the relative performance of the teachers? I’d first point out that Jim Manzi has yet to attempt a quantitative metric to evaluate teacher performance. So there’s a chance we may yet have a better measure than we now enjoy. But say things remain as they are today. I must confess that I don’t see the problem. I acknowledge the flaws in pegging pay to test scores, or student evaluations, or any other single metric. But isn’t job performance in myriad fields difficult to quantify by an objective measure that is accurate and fair all the time?

Consider a surgeon. The overall success rate of his surgeries doesn’t account for the fact that he may operate on particularly difficult cases. Patients aren’t knowledgeable enough to create reliable performance evaluations. Does anyone therefore argue that we ought to pay all surgeons based on their seniority, that we ought to make it very difficult to fire bad surgeons, etc?

I’ve worked as a camp counselor for special needs kids, a phone operator at the number people called when their Mazda vehicles broke down, a marketing staffer at a judicial arbitration and mediation firm, a newspaper reporter, a magazine editor, and a consultant for a financial services firm. My friends growing up worked as lifeguards, retail employees, tennis instructors, bartenders, and waiters. All these jobs are difficult to evaluate by any consistent, objective measure. Even so, we can all imagine what would happen at all the restaurants if the waiters, rather than relying on the obviously imperfect tipping system to differentiate pay, instead found themselves forced to pool tips and redistribute them at the end of the night on the basis of seniority. What do you think might happen to the quality of service and morale?

Just give principals the same power over pay and firing decisions as managers in most other fields. They won’t make perfect, objectively fair compensation decisions. There isn’t any compensation system that yields such results (though the principal system at least offers a theoretical possibility that might happen). It isn’t as though the average principal is itching to fire proficient teachers. Even absent tenure, educators will still be protected by employment law, the fact that it’s costly and time-consuming to hire a new employee rather than improving the performance of an existing one (I went to Catholic school for 14 years, where teachers had no protection, and I remember only one termination), and the fact that even if a teacher runs across one unfair principal there are a lot of schools out there.

E.D. writes:

By paying teachers based on abstract and arbitrary national (or even local) standards, we are going to sabotage teacher performance because we’re going to ignore how kids learn, and inevitably how teachers ought to teach. Any professors out there want to start teaching to national standardized tests?

That’s an objection to pay based on test scores, but I don’t see how it’s an objection to pay based on principal discretion, the system that strikes me as the best among imperfect options.