THE BLOG
10/17/2014 11:03 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

Why Performance Incentives and Public Schools Don't Mix

Compassionate Eye Foundation/Martin Barraud via Getty Images

We have always paid public servants a flat fee, untethered to any sort of "performance measures." That's because we want public service to be completely disconnected from any private interests.

Fighting Fire With Money

Imagine if, for instance, we paid fire fighters on sliding scale, based on how many of which type fires they put out at a certain speed. This would be disastrous for many reasons.

Fire fighters would refuse to work in cities where there were few fires to fight, because they couldn't make a living. In cities where there were commonly multiple fires and their livelihood on the line, fire fighters would be encouraged to look at each fire call through a lens of "What's in it for me?"

For instance, in a system where fire fighters were paid based on the value of the flame-besieged property, fire fighters might view some small building fires as Not Worth the Trouble. Why bother traveling to the other side of the tracks? It's only a hundred-dollar blaze, anyway. Let's wait till something breaks out up in the million-dollar neighborhood.

In the worst-case scenario, one of our fire fighters depending on performance-based pay to feed his family may be tempted to grab some matches and go fire up some business.

Perverse Incentivization

Occasionally we've seen these kinds of perverse incentives in action, and we don't much like it. The areas of the country where you take extra speed limit care at the end of the month because the local police have a quota to meet. The neighborhood where cops have to roust a certain number of suspects a week to keep their job ratings. Nobody thinks these are examples of excellence in public service.

In fact, we have tried private police forces and private fire companies in the past. We don't much care for how that works out, because it creates a system that provides excellent service -- but only for the customers who are paying for it.

The idea of public service is to create a class of people who are above self-interest and who do not respond to a single boss. We are outraged when abuse of police power happens precisely because we expect the police to act as if they work for everyone, and to put their dedication to that service above any single interests, including their own.

That's the definition of public service -- service roles that are stripped of any possibility of incentives other than the mandate to serve the public good. That's what we mean by "professional" -- a person who puts all personal self-interest aside and focuses on Getting the Job Done. Trying to motivate a public servant with self-interest inevitably tends to pollute the professional setting with the very self-interest that we're trying to get out of there.

Incentives and Suck-ups

Here's the thing about performance incentives. They always come from actual individual humans. In business that's okay, because the humans are already the bosses.

In public service, we often talk about performance incentives as if they fall from the sky, descending fully-formed from some on-high objective source. They are not. They, too, are developed by actual individual humans. And those humans will invariably encode their own values and priorities into the incentives.

"I like red houses. I think they are more valuable," say our fire company evaluators. "That's why I live in one. And that's why a good fire company always gives priority to saving red houses first."

Performance incentives for public service always -- always -- involve substituting the values of the few for the values of everybody. Fire fighters are supposed to save everybody's homes. Police are supposed to protect every citizen. The US Postal Service is supposed to deliver to every home. They are there to serve the public, and that means everybody. Public schools are supposed to educate all students. Public servants are supposed to support the values of all citizens. Any performance based evaluation reward system will prioritize some citizens' values over those of other citizens.

A Public Service Performance Based Incentive System in Action

You know which public servants have a fully-realized performance-based pay system in place?

Congress.

The CEO of International Whoomdinglers says, "That Senator Bogswaller has done an excellent job of looking out for the things we believe are important. He ought to keep his job. Send him a big fat check."

The head of the Society for Preservation of Free-Range Spongemonkeys says, "We appreciate the hard work that Representative Whangdoodle has done looking out for spongemonkeys. He deserves a raise. Send him a big fat check."

You (and the members of the Supreme Court who are paying attention) might call this corruption, but it's just a Performance Based Incentive System, and the high regard with which Congress is held tells you how well a PBIS mixes with public service.

But But But

But a Performance Based Incentive System put in place by the government would not be run like the hodge-podge of private interests you describe incentivizing the US Congress, you say.

And I say, baloney. We already have a Performance Based Incentive System that says you're a better school district if you sell more of the College Board's AP product line. The PBIS testing system being used to incentivize students and teachers and schools -- that system is entirely a product of private corporate interests.

The only difference between a private incentive system, like the one that runs Congress, and a public one, like Race to the Top, is whether the people with money and power have to manipulate a government middle man or can go straight to the source.

Under the Umbrella

I teach mostly juniors, sometimes seniors. There are a few things I tell them every year.

One is to make the most out of senior year, because it is the last time they will be surrounded by people who are paid to put the students' interests first. It's the last time they'll be in an institution that is organized around their concerns, their interests, their needs. After that, they're in the open market. They will always be dealing with people who are trying to sell them something.

The PSAT will collect a ton of information about them so it can turn around and sell that data to colleges. Colleges will try to sell them, particularly if they are highly desirable customers students. Employers will try to get the use of their talents without having to pay much for it, and politicians will piss on them and tell them it's raining so that the pols can keep their jobs.

But here, under the umbrella of the public school, my students have nothing that I need to survive or make a living. I have no reason to do this job except for the reason I took this job in the first place -- to serve the best interests of my students.

It Doesn't Make Any Difference

It makes business-oriented reformy types crazy that the way I do my job doesn't make any difference to my pay. I understand the terror for them there, but that Not Making A Difference is actually the point of how we pay public servants.

It doesn't matter it's a big fire or a small fire, a rich person's house or a poor person's house -- the fire department still does their job. It doesn't matter whether I have a classroom full of bright students or slow students, rich students or poor students, ambitious students or lazy students -- I will still show up and do my job the best I know how. I should never, ever, ever have to look at a class roster or a set of test results or a practice quiz and think, "Dammit, these kids are going to keep me from making my house payment next month." I should never view my students as an obstacle to feeding my family.

Why I Won't Suck

Reformsters are sure that human beings must be motivated by threats and rewards, and that the lack of threats and rewards means that I can too easily choose to do a crappy job, because it won't make any difference. They are wrong. Here's why.

1) I knew the gig when I started. I knew I would not get rich, not be powerful, not have a chance to rise to some position of prominence. There was no reason to enter teaching in the first except a desire to do right by the students.

2) Teaching is too hard to do half-assed. Do a consistently lousy job, and the students will eat you alive and dragging yourself out of bed every day will be too damn much. There isn't enough money to keep people flailing badly in a classroom for a lifetime. Just ask all the TFA dropouts who said, "Damn! This is hella hard!" and left the classroom.


And Most Importantly

Threats and rewards do not make people better public servants (nor have I ever seen a lick of research that suggests otherwise, but feel free to review this oft-linked video re: motivation). Threats and rewards interfere with people's ability to get their job done. Threats and rewards motivate people to game the system.

And any time you have a complex system being measured with simple instruments, you have a system that is ripe for gaming. In fact, if your measures are bad enough (looking at you, high stakes tests and VAM), your system can only be successfully operated by gaming it.

So, No Accountability At All?

Heck, no. You need to keep an eye out for the grossly incompetent, though they will often self-identify (I've made a huge mistake) and take the next stage out of Dodge. Beyond that, you just go watch and pay attention. If you're my administration, you're welcome in my classroom at any time for as long as you'd like to stay. No, don't bring that stupid checklist. Just watch and listen and use your professional judgment. If you think I need to fix something, let's you and I talk about it. How will bringing in extra layers of bureaucracy and government make that system work any more smoothly?

Man, This Is Running Long

Agreed. Sometimes these posts get away from me.

Bottom line -- the comparison to private enterprise performance based incentive systems is bogus. Those systems may be appropriate in corporate environments where we want to enforce a bias in favor of certain actors and outcomes -- where some people are in fact more important than others.

But in public service, performance based incentive systems are contra-indicated. They by nature enforce a particular bias and cannot help but tilt the system in favor of some customers over others. Performance based systems are an invitation to ignore the clients who keep you from making bank.

The system we have does, in fact, make sense. We stand our public servants beside a door and we say, "I'm going to pay you to stand here and wait as long as it takes and help whoever comes through that door. It doesn't matter who comes through that door -- nothing is going to affect your pay, so that's a settled and done deal -- just concentrate on watching that door and helping whoever walks through it."

Are You Still Here?

God bless you. Feel free to chime in in the comments.

Originally posted at Curmudgucation