Do Incentives Shape Teacher Behavior Or Don’t They?

Picking up a thread again from last week, Dana Goldstein says there’s a difference between testing and test-based accountability and uses as an example a teacher who constructed a particularly inane-sounding poetry lesson on the theory that this would help kids do well on the Maryland School Assessment. She concludes that “when testing policies are set up to punish adults, educators are incentivized to raise test scores at any cost, not to use tests to help better instruct children.”

Here, again, I run into what I think is a huge consistency problem in the messaging coming out of teachers unions. Sometimes I hear from union-affiliated folks that it’s unfair to attribute differences in student learning to differences in teacher skill, because everyone knows that socioeconomic and home environment factors drive a lot of this. Other times I see the American Federation of Teachers building a messaging program around the idea that its members are Making A Difference Every Day. To me this leads to the obvious conclusion that while socioeconomic and home environment factors do drive a lot of student learning, teachers are also making a difference every day. And it makes a lot of sense to ask which teachers are making the most difference. The teachers who are in the top 20 percent of difference-makers are playing a vital role to the future of America, and we ought to pay them more money and make sure they don’t leave the profession. But the teachers who are in the bottom percent of difference-makers are doing us little good, and we should try to replace them with other people.

Of course to do that, you need to measure student learning and that means tests. But now comes out the worry that educators are now “incentivized to raise test scores at any cost” and will become soulless stat-juking monsters. If this is true, though, then what happens is teachers are given zero financial incentive to perform well on the job. What if the only financial incentives teachers get are to obtain meaningless degrees and stick around long enough for pensions to vest? It’s fun to speculate on the extent to which educators are or aren’t driven by objective financial incentives, but you need a consistent psychological theory of the case. The hypothesis that a teacher who responds to an incentive-free system is going to have a highly effective pedagogical method that he then abandons in favor of pure score-gaming once faced with an incentive to get students to do well on tests doesn’t make sense. Something nice about Bad Teacher is that it portrays this correctly — the teacher disposed to respond badly to test-based incentives is the same person as the person disposed to respond badly to an incentive-free environment.

My own take is that talk of incentives is massively overrated. Baseball teams don’t pay a premium to guys who hit lots of home runs in order to create “incentives” for people to hit home runs. If that worked, we’d all be major league sluggers! Baseball teams pay a premium to guys who lots of home runs because home run hitters are valuable contributors to baseball teams. Hitters who perform worse are less valuable. And hitters who perform very poorly are drummed out of MLB. That’s not really about incentives; it’s about attracting and retaining high performers to your organization.