Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Incentives matter

There's always an incentive structure, whether it's been carefully crafted by Deep Thinkers, or cobbled together piecemeal over decades.  The people in that system will respond to that incentive structure.  Quite frankly, this is the best argument against larger government, as Philip Greenspun writes on public schools:

I talked to a Spanish teacher in a suburban Boston public high school last night. She expressed her disapproval of the idea of merit pay for teachers. “Some of my students hate their parents and some have been sexually abused,” she noted, “but my salary is supposed to be based on their performance?”

I responded that I thought the deeper question was how school administrators would evaluate merit. I asked “What incentive does a school administrator have to do a good job evaluating merit, or indeed, to do any work at all?” The teacher said “none, especially if they are a member of a protected minority group. They can’t be fired, no matter how little they do.” That made sense to me; the school is guaranteed to get nearly all of the students in the town regardless of whether or not the administrators do anything (few parents can afford to pay property taxes that fund public schools and then pay private school tuition as well). Wasn’t a teacher also guaranteed customers even if she didn’t work? “You have to try to sell the students at the beginning of the year that the class will be fun. Otherwise it is just unpleasant to sit with them for the remaining 8 months. If I’m incompetent and lazy, I will still get the same paycheck and the same number of students, but it will be tedious to share a classroom with unhappy students. That’s my incentive to work.”

Reflecting on this conversation, I was surprised that anyone thinks merit pay will work.
Ignore what's going on in Wisconsin, as public "servants" riot to keep their higher-than-market wages in the face of a government fiscal crisis.  Assume for the sake of argument that the government was on a sound financial footing; public education would still be irretrievably broken, because the incentive structure all points in the wrong way.

The only question is why anyone would expect any reforms to improve the system.


JD said...

We need to go back and look at when the system whet off the rails. . . I bet this is about the time we came up with the great idea of a Federal Education Dept. . . .

Once we can pinpoint when studends started to fail, we can look at what we changed that possibly caused it and undo those changes.

to do this we need to get rid of unions and anything else that will stop us from changing the system back to what worked. No more new math or anything else, we go back to what worked.

genedunn said...

IMHO, only one reform is needed. Vouchers. Crappy teachers and schools can try to justify their pay and existence when they have empty classrooms. This is destined to happen when parents are given the power to choose where their education dollars are sent.

I would love to have an all-private-market school system, but ultimately it doesn't matter who runs it... whoever does the best job will win my tax or tuition dollars, the others will wither and die.

Divemedic said...

I don't think that the government should be involved in education at all. However, public employees being overpaid is a myth.


Take the time to read this.

Anonymous said...

Why then does public education work at all? It's as if some number of people are determined to learn, and some are eager to teach, as if there were something like a naturally occurring voltage difference. After all, people did manage to learn and teach before the government took over the whole business. At this point maybe the public school is not a generator creating the voltage, but a machine running on the voltage.

BC said...

Something that has not been brought up anywhere yet is the fact that there is a legal obligation on the student and their parents/guardians to attend school.


When did it become the norm to keep a failing student in the school system and dumbing down classes and graduation standards to pass them through the system instead of letting them drop out and dig ditches by hand?

Allow the students and their legal guardians to drop out if they can't hack rigorous coursework. What is left should be a better crop of students, more able to learn and earn. The goal should be to earn a diploma through performance and demonstration of content mastery; not 13 years of attendance.