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Clare Leaver and Lant Pritchett on Pay for Performance for teachers (and how to think about interventions in general)

Even if you’re not interested in pay for performance, this article is is fantastic in the way that it sets a clear foundation for discussion of an emotive topic by pointing out the often-overlooked but obvious common ground shared by readers on all sides of the debate:

Here is the essence of our argument. High-performing education systems already use some form of “pay for performance,” in the broad sense that teachers on the payroll have to “perform” in the basics and are expected to contribute to student learning, without controversy. Only dysfunctional systems feature the reverse: “pay for no performance at all.” For instance, teachers often remain on the payroll even if they fail to even turn up to school…

It also offers a great illustration of how important an understanding of context is in determining the suitability of a given intervention. Few things work everywhere, and there are no silver bullets:

Suppose the proposal is to introduce a bonus scheme into a high income setting where “salary for the basics” and “hedonic rewards for broadly-appraised performance” are functioning well and learning outcomes are already quite high. Moreover, suppose teachers who fail to do the basics do not stay on the payroll, and, due to a combination of intrinsic motivation (including internalised professional norms) and promotion prospects, the typical teacher is performing at least adequately, perhaps even well. In this context, layering a bonus scheme on top of the largely functional system may not make sense. Distorting teacher effort, reducing intrinsic motivation, and gaming the measure could plausibly make things worse. In fact, the merits of bonus schemes are debated, not just in education, but also in purely private sector firms in the rich countries for many of these same reasons. … Not at all surprisingly, therefore, evidence from impact evaluations in education systems in high income, high functioning, settings suggest that sometimes bonus schemes have led to worse outcomes (e.g. Breeding, Béteille and Evans, forthcoming 2019).

Now suppose the proposal is to introduce a scheme into a low income setting that is not functioning well and where teachers who fail to perform the basics remain on the payroll. That is, imagine a setting where, due to already eroded intrinsic motivation and professional norms and a lack of promotion prospects (or other hedonic rewards) based on broadly assessed high performance, few teachers are performing adequately and many are not even achieving minimally adequate time on task to teaching and learning activity. In this context, layering a bonus scheme on top of the existing system might make sense. All three concerns loom less large. True, getting teachers to focus on measured inputs (school presence, classroom conduct) and outcomes (student learning in tested subjects) is only part of the job of a teacher. But they are an important part of the job and these might be a natural place to start changing not just the compensation scheme but the norms.

Clare Leaver and Lant Pritchett – Should “Pay for Performance” Be Used for Teachers? (With a plea to pause before you answer)

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