What Economists Don’t Understand About Educators

In yet another example of economists churning out crappy research that will have a negative impact on #edupolicy, Harvard professor Roland Fryer and Freakonomics co-author and University of Chicago professor Steven Levitt recently released a study touting the #edupower of "loss aversion" merit pay programs.

So what exactly do "loss aversion" merit pay programs look like in action?

Essentially, participating teachers are given a bonus at the BEGINNING of a school year — in Fryer and Levitt's study, $4,000 — and then told that they'll have to GIVE BACK monies if their students don't meet and/or exceed expectations on standardized tests given at the end of the school year.

Now THAT is nothing short of pure #edubrilliance, isn't it? 

Hit 'em with a little carrot and a little stick and maybe those lazy teachers will pick up the slack and finally start performing.  The same approach was VERY successful, Fryer and Levitt point out, at improving the productivity of CHINESE FACTORY WORKERS in the ONLY other setting where the benefits of loss-aversion merit pay programs were studied.

#sheesh

#teachingAINTfactorywork

Outside of the obvious methodological flaws in this heaping pile of #edutrash — the authors themselves admit that unravelling the impact different members of teaching teams have on the performance of the individual students that they share was impossible — Fryer and Levitt fail to understand a simple #edutruth about teachers:

External incentives — no matter WHEN they are awarded — are ineffective in education because we're ALREADY working as hard as we can to do right by our kids.

As my good friend Rick DuFour likes to say, NO ONE in this profession wakes up in the morning thinking, "I'm going to do a half-assed job this morning because I'm just not being paid enough to work any harder than that." 

Teachers are driven by the desire to see our students succeed — and while our practices may need polishing, to assume that a few thousand bucks might FINALLY force us to give our all is nothing short of #eduignorance. 

Seriously.  Let's think about this for a minute:  Are we REALLY convinced that folks who have willingly chosen a career in the classroom are holding something back out of spite over their salaries knowing full-well that holding back has life-altering consequences for kids? 

The problem in education isn't long lines of pathetic teachers who need a good kick in the pants, y'all. The problem in education is long lines of teachers who are working in dysfunctional, underfunded systems that incentivize irresponsible practices.

And to put it bluntly, we're just plain #eduscrewed as long as we are willing to allow the narrow, pessimistic view of human behavior held by economists to drive the most important choices that we make about what happens in our classrooms.

#whew

#gotTHAToffmychest

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Really Long List of Related Radical Reads Which I Invite Economists to Peruse Before Wasting Anymore Time Studying Merit Pay Programs:

Note to Arne: Cash Incentives Never Work

Need MORE Proof that Incentive Programs are Dangerous?

The Monster You've Created

Bulldozing the Forests

The Truth About Teacher Merit Pay Plans

Merit Pay Plans for Teachers are a Poor Idea

The Unintended Consequences of Rewards Programs in Schools

Tired of Being the Nation's Punching Bag

What CAN Schools Learn from Hero Ball?

Why I NEVER Recommend Teaching as a Profession Anymore

12 thoughts on “What Economists Don’t Understand About Educators

  1. Zanada Maleki

    Here’s the thing: the merit pay system rewards with $. But how it rewards with the $ is a mystery in order that those who merit the $ receive the $.
    What will really change the system of education management from administration to teachers to ed techs is a few seminars in sales and marketing. That’s where you learn that the merit of the job is not thru intimidation, but thru a true collaboration. Yes, there are those teachers who wake up in the morniing and dedicate themselves to doing as little as possible. Why? Perhaps when they did above and beyond they were smacked down by peers, and by administration, not to mention that their classroom populations increased to larger sizes, decreasing sound teaching practices to crowd control. It’s not the old days, anymore and the client base in our public schools is maturationally different.
    How about those teachers who do give their all on the job only to be rewarded with having highly troubled kids transferred into their classrooms because they can handle those types of kids better? Do you job well, effectively, efficaciously, and that’s the reward. The other teachers who can’t handle these troubled kids get relief, rewarded for being ineffective. Yes, there are layers of complaints in this little epistle. But there it is.
    So, to recap: teachers and administrators need to look at the profession thru the eyes of sales and marketing. We are selling the products called knowledge and skills. Our profits are the students who leave us in their dust and go onward and upward to the next level of educational challenge. Our losses are those students we couldn’t reach effectively, who make flat line or negative progress in their test scores, and we have not been able to diagnose what their learning dysfunctional problem really is.
    An administrator’s profit includes staff stability, with only 10% turnover. An administrator’s loss includes a staff turnover of up to 40% or more and it’s not due to moving out of state or even to attrition. Everything is trickle down, as we have learned in management seminars. The hardest workers might go so unnoticed because of the politics of entertaining the squeeky wheels of the staff.
    Bottom line: in that we teachers are now to look at education students based on the clinical model of test scores only, we are looking at a business model. If we are looking at a business model, then we need to look at the approach from a sales and marketing vantage in how we treat ourselves, as well as each other from the top down the line. If the model includes battle pay, then pay those teachers who have had increased populations of highly dysfunctional students. They are working 2-3 times harder and smarter than those who obtained relief. Reward those schools that are making a difference in the urban areas. Yes, reward with something as simple as a workshop day in which teachers are permitted to use that day to work in their own rooms. There is merit in that plan.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Lance wrote — among other things:
    My suggestion is to turn your attention to ensuring that we get the best people in schools and develop methods to keep them motivated as well as a less cumbersome process to remove those who are just taking up space.
    – – – – – – – – – – –
    Lance,
    The one place that we definitely agree is that there needs to be a clear — and easy — process for removing teachers who are “just taking up space.”
    No one — teachers included — are opposed to that idea. We’re as frustrated by crappy colleagues as the general public.
    But that’s not what merit pay plans accomplish at all.
    Worse yet, merit pay plans create competitive environments that do nothing to encourage accomplished teachers to help their struggling peers.
    If I’m working in an environment where teachers are rewarded/punished for the scores of individual students and one of my colleagues is awful for any reason, why would I ever help them?
    Instead, I’d let them — and by default, the students in their classrooms — struggle because it would make me look better by comparison.
    You mention concentrating on ways to get the best people in schools and to keep them there.
    That’s exactly what I’m doing — and I’d argue that #edpolicies like those spotlighted in my post are one of the primary reasons that we can’t keep teachers in the classroom.
    Any of this make sense?
    Bill

  3. Lance

    Bill –
    Having worked as both a teacher and in the private sector, I’d like to comment on a few items.
    I get it, you’re a hard working teacher, but your comment, “NO ONE in this profession wakes up in the morning thinking, ‘I’m going to do a half-assed job this morning because’ . . . .” makes you appear either naive or that you have buried your head in the sand to the very real fact that many do exactly that, as little as possible just to get by. Unfortunately these people are protected by unions and tenure. Just acknolwledging that not everyone in education is a Grade A professional will go a long way for your credibility for those of your readers not in education.
    Next item.
    Are we REALLY convinced that folks who have willingly chosen a career in the classroom are holding something back out of spite over their salaries knowing full-well that holding back has life-altering consequences for kids?
    That’s a loaded statement. But in short, absolutely. Remember, you choose your career pretty much in college. Lots of education majors in this country. Like it or not, education majors as well as education master degrees are pretty vanilla. (How about the two-year Ed.D. cohort programs that are so popular among principals?) Not really weeding out the weak and lazy for the best and the brightest. Do you know what happens to these people when they graduate? They go on and become teachers, and since principals don’t generally revoke tenure, these people get jobs and then we’re stuck with them.
    People will put in effort, but what you consider to be a solid effort and what someone else who has not been teacher of the year considers to be a solid effort are two different things. You most likely would have been successful at any profession, and I’ll guess that you don’t care about tenure. You’re one of the ones we want in the classroom.
    Final item.
    The problem in education isn’t long lines of pathetic teachers who need a good kick in the pants, y’all. The problem in education is long lines of teachers who are working in dysfunctional, underfunded systems that incentivize irresponsible practices.
    The system has a lot of problems, and I am in complete agreement. However, teachers do need a kick in the pants from time to time. All of them. No one, especially now when our economy is in the tank, has much sympathy for someone who can’t get fired unless they abuse a child.
    My suggestion is to turn your attention to ensuring that we get the best people in schools and develop methods to keep them motivated as well as a less cumbersome process to remove those who are just taking up space. We agree on a lot, but instead of taking it so personally, take a hard and honest look at your colleagues and profession.
    Nice post.

  4. Chelsea M

    “Thats what these reports all ignore: Were not all working with the same pile of cash and/or the same resources when were working with kids.”
    Bill, I couldn’t agree with you more. It is unfair to apply a specific, cookie-cutter policy into a system that is nowhere near uniform.
    I’m from Michigan where recently the first merit pay policy was passed in St. Clair county. Reports make it sound as if the policy was met with little protest.
    It will be interesting to see how this system is perceived by the teachers of St. Clair in June 2013.

  5. Dylan Rustenholtz

    I totally agree with you. As a future teacher myself I am a little offended that anyone would offer money to teachers to make sure that they put forth maximum effort. So teachers aren’t putting forth their full ability now? Beyond that, I disagree with extensive standardized testing. Teachers should not be focussed on teaching for tests, they should be teaching for the betterment and success of their students.

  6. Youreyeah.blogspot.com

    The merit pay system is ridiculous for two reasons. First, there is no way to evaluate the performance of a teacher besides yearly standardized testing, which doesn’t necessarily provide an accurate evaluation. There are a lot of teachers who may very well fall into the “lazy” category because they only teach to the test and ignore other important parts of the curriculum. There simply is no way to evaluate teachers fairly, which means good teachers will be punished. Secondly, not only are most teachers doing the best they can, the “bad” teachers will usually weed themselves out. Nearly half of teachers change professions in the first five years. It is not the passionate teachers who are quitting, it is the teachers who don’t care who quit. Ultimately, the teachers trying their hardest will be punished in the long run. Trying and succeeding are two different things, and considering the current state of the American educational system (especially in areas like Detroit that have over populated schools and no resources), sometimes trying to deal with budget cuts and over-populated classrooms will doom educators before they have a chance. If they really want to help, they should find more private donors so that classrooms are smaller and resources are more abundant. Merit based incentives are not the answer.

  7. Bill Ferriter

    Marsha wrote:
    I HATE the fact that we have an unworkable process for helping those
    people who arent suited for teaching move onto a different profession.
    Making this improvement to our system wouldnt cost anything.
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Im with you on this one, Marsha. I think that most people who harp about merit pay are thinking of these kinds of folks when they talk about holding teachers accountable. What they dont realize is that we are just as passionate about holding poor teachers accountable as they are.
    But when entire systems are created that wrap every teacher into a ridiculous and unhealthy accountability process just to punish the small handful of teachers that you describe, policy is failing.
    Rock on,
    Bill

  8. Taughttoteach.blogspot.com

    Thanks for your post. I am in school to be a teacher, and its discouraging when studies like this make teachers out to be lazy, etc. Teachers are the hardest working people I know.I hope one day there will be a shift in how teachers are perceived.

  9. Marsha

    Dear Bill,
    I completely agree with your assessment of this kind of incentive. I work super hard and not for the $$$.
    But where I disagree with you is that there is a very small percentage of teachers who do go to school wondering how to work as little as possible…just enough not to get written up or fired. Those teachers are the back-breakers for me. When I exhausted from working 12 hour days and they walk in with the kids, walk out with the kids and give everyone a good grade…..I get discouraged and mad.
    I don’t so much care about making more $$$ (because that’s just a pipe dream in today’s economy), but I HATE the fact that we have an unworkable process for helping those people who aren’t suited for teaching move onto a different profession. Making this improvement to our system wouldn’t cost anything.

  10. Bill Ferriter

    Im with you, Michael.
    I was thinking that a fun twist on this report would be to have an economist figure out just how much educating a student fairly and responsibly would cost.
    Then, if a teacher in a state like NC which spends FAR below that number produces results that exceed the national average, they would be rewarded with the difference between the per pupil spending in the state and the number determined to be fair by an economist.
    An example: If economists determine that it costs $9,000 to fairly educate a child and I work in a district that spends $7,700 per pupil, Id be awarded $1,300 for every student that exceeded national standards.
    Thats what these reports all ignore: Were not all working with the same pile of cash and/or the same resources when were working with kids. #thatmatters.
    Hope youre well,
    Bill

  11. Janet Abercrombie

    In Levitt’s first _Freakonomics_ book, he asserts that teachers and sumo wrestlers have something in common: incentives to cheat.
    So, this new writing surprises me. Hmmmm.

  12. Michael

    People who think they know all about education and have never worked in any school environment drive me bananas. Why don’t we set up a merit pay system for politicians? If the state and or country (especially the economy) does well, then they get their salary ($30,800 [starting teacher pay in NC] plus an undefined, unfunded, and unfulfilled promise of a bonus). If the economy doesn’t recover, or the state (country) declines, then they get $20,000 (a number I heard one politician throw out in a Q&A session) and we put them on an “action plan” for the remainder of their term.

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