(cc photo by kevin dooley)

(cc photo by kevin dooley)

I agree with David Brooks that the Race to the Top program is pretty great, but having just been participating in a tedious listserve debate about this issue, I think the rhetoric deployed in this paragraph is counterproductive:

Third, the president has better aligned the education system with American values. In every other job in this country, people are measured by whether they produce results. For decades, that didn’t apply to schools, where people were rewarded even as student achievement stagnated.

The fact of the matter is that it’s simply not true that measurement by results is universal in American employment. For example, op-ed columnists at the New York Times are not paid via a rigorous assessment of their marginal impact on readership. Nor, for that matter, are New York Times reporters. In the internet world, it is feasible to compensate writers largely on the basis of the traffic they draw and some people are paid this way but that’s a new phenomenon in the world of media. What’s more, it’s a compensation scheme that most people find unpleasant to work under, so I think it’s unlikely that pure traffic-based performance pay will ever become the rule since, somewhat paradoxically, implementing strict performance pay seems likely to undermine performance. Similarly, I don’t think military units would function better if we had junior officers handing out differentiated performance-related bonuses to the soldiers under their command.

That said, Brook is right that we should change the way we pay teachers! Every year some teachers leave the profession and other teachers don’t leave the profession. And whether or not a given teacher quits teaching has some relationship to how much money he or she learns. Since it is possible to roughly measure how much a teacher’s students are learning, it makes sense to offer more money to teachers whose students learn a lot since that way teachers who are very good at teaching are less likely to leave than teachers who aren’t very good at it. But this wouldn’t somehow transform the labor market for teachers into one that’s just like “every other job in this country” and it’s very hard to see how you could achieve that goal or why you would want to. It just happens to be the case that there are some performance pay reforms to public school salary schemes that make sense.