Much to Learn About Vouchers Rhee Still Has

April 25, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Last month Sean Cavanaugh interviewed Michelle Rhee about vouchers over at Ed Week. Overall I’m happy to have Rhee and other “Cool Kids” support parental choice, even if it is on a limited basis. I hope they think deeper on the subject however, as many Cool Kids are far more misguided on vouchers than Rhee. It is easy however to detect shoot-from-the-hip attitudes in the interview. Rhee told Cavanaugh:

“When people talk about universal vouchers, first of all, I’ve never seen an economic model that actually made sense and laid that out in way that’s sustainable,” Rhee said. I haven’t seen any kind of model that makes economic sense. … My support for vouchers is around a specific group of kids.”

“There are a lot of people out there who sort of believe, the free market, let the free market reign, the market will correct itself—give every kid a backpack with their money in it and let them choose wherever they want to go,” she added. “I don’t believe in that model at all.”

I’m still waiting for the day when supporters of means-tested vouchers come out and explain why they don’t support means testing public schools. Bill Gates could move to Milwaukee right now and enroll his children in public schools that cost taxpayers $13,000 per year. No one blinks. If he were to move to Milwaukee and get $6,400 vouchers however some of us want are inclined to view it as a grave injustice. I’ve yet to hear anyone propose that we should have economic cleansing of charter schools either-out with you middle and high-income children and don’t come back!

Don’t get me wrong- I have fought for a number of means-tested programs and continue to support them. I also strongly support an advantage for the poor, but not means-testing. Rhee is discussing the ideal however, and as an ideal, limited programs have some unresolvable problems.

Rhee also seems to be influenced by straw-man arguments. Very few people advocate a complete free market in education, and those that do don’t support vouchers. From Milton Friedman’s original formulation of the voucher concept he argued for public financing of K-12 education rather than financing and provision. Friedman also recognized the need for some level of regulation. The appropriate level of course remains an issue for debate.

As an aside, Rhee goes on to specifically distance herself from Florida governor Rick Scott’s proposal for universal education savings accounts during his transition, on which Rhee served. National Review Online rightly described this as “the most significant, transformative idea ever advanced by an actual elected official with any real power.” Sadly Scott’s proposal activated the hyperbolic anti-choice antibodies of Florida’s newspapers, and Governor Scott stopped pushing the proposal. Testing new ideas with pilot programs can be a agonizingly slow process, but that process has begun in Arizona. Florida’s private choice program continues to expand incrementally through the Step Up for Students program. I remain hopeful that something between Governor Scott’s initial ambition and the current slow pace of bringing funded private choice eligibility to Florida children will be enacted. Zero to sixty to two seconds sometimes wraps a Ferrari around a telephone pole, the price of being aggressive, but it isn’t an argument in favor of indefinite gradualism.

But I digress. Rhee went on:

“It has to be a heavily regulated industry,” she said. “I believe in accountability across the board. If you’re going to be having a publicly funded voucher program, then kids have to be taking standardized tests. We have to be measuring whether kids are academically better off in this private school with this voucher than they would be going to their failing neighborhood school. If they’re not, they shouldn’t get the voucher. … I’m about choice only if it results in better outcomes and opportunities for kids.”

Rhee’s faith in regulation is odd. The public school system is super-heavily regulated with laws and policies streaming down from the federal, state and local levels. Despite all of that, much of the system performs at a tragically poor level.  That of course is not to say that vouchers should have no regulation, but the right level of regulation is not “heavy.”

Rhee also places far too much weight on the results of standardized test and gives far too little deference to the judgment of parents. Parents make decisions about schools for a large variety of reasons- including things like school safety, peer groups and the availability of specialized programs. In addition to missing the whole point about school choices being multifaceted with parents best able to judge all the factors, individual test scores bounce around from year to year, they often take a temporary hit when a child transfers and adjusts to a new school.

The notion of having program administrators looking at the math and reading tests and deciding to cast children back to their ‘failing neighborhood school’ is very problematic. Pity the poor voucher program apparatchiks who have to drag children back to a public school where they had been continually bullied because they had the flu on testing day. Pity the children more. The subject of what to do about poorly performing private schools in a choice system is a complex topic and opinions vary widely. Rhee’s proposed solution however does not begin to capture this complexity.

Rhee wraps up:

The ideal public school system, Rhee argued, will include high-quality traditional public schools and a charter sector, as well as some vouchers.

“But the vast majority of kids are going to be in a high-performing public school environment,” she said, adding: “I’m a believer in public schools. I’m a public school parent. I ran a public school district.”

Public schools will continue to serve as the primary conduits for education regardless of what we do on the choice side of things.We are a long, long way from having high-quality public schools for all children, and choice can play a role in moving us in that direction. Choice improves public schools and we can hardly will the ends without the means.

If however we embrace only tiny choice programs targeted at limited student populations, that positive role will likewise remain limited. In the end, catastrophically under-performing schools do so because they can get away with it. I’m all for efforts to improve the laughably ineffectual quality of our regulation in an effort to curtail this, but choice is the only decentralized system of accountability that allow parents to hold schools accountable for individual results.

We need as much parental choice as we can get.

(Edited for typos and clarity)

A Closer Look at DC NAEP Scores

January 12, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A few months ago, I provided a quick analysis of DCPS NAEP scores under Michelle Rhee. Having looked into the fine details, I believe that I underestimated the positive trend in DCPS reading scores during the 2007-2011 period.

NAEP has long dealt with a tricky issue with varying inclusion rates for special education and English language learners between jurisdictions. In 2011, the NAEP adopted inclusion rate standards for ELL and SD students, and notified readers of jurisdictions that violated those standards in an appendix.

Some states and jurisdictions had far more successful efforts to comply with these efforts than others. As you can see from the figure below, DC would have been far out of compliance with these standards (had they been in place) during the 1990s and (especially) in 2007. In 2007, DCPS had excluded nearly three times as many students as permissible under the 2011 standards.

So in 2007, DCPS officials excluded 14% of students from 4th Grade NAEP testing, and in 2011 that figure fell to 3% (the inclusion for all students standard in 2011 was 95%). In 2007, DCPS stood far out of compliance, but came well within compliance in 2011. This is all well and fine, other than the fact that it complicates our ability to assess the recent history of DC NAEP gains.

In order to get a clearer picture on this, I decided to run 4th Grade NAEP scores for students outside of ELL or special education programs. This should minimize the impact of inclusion policy changes. Examined in this fashion, you get the following results:

Recall that the unadjusted total scores for 4th grade reading jumped from 197 in 2007 to 202 in 2009 but dropped back a point to 201 in 2011. That is a four point gain in four years, which ranks in meh territory. Given Figure 1 above, I am not exactly inclined to trust those scores, and in fact out second table tells quite a different story: general education students in DC made a 10 point gain between 2007 and 2011 on 4th grade reading. Ten points approximately equals a grade level worth of progress, so it is fair to say that DCPS general education 4th graders were reading approximately as well as 2007 general education 5th graders. Ten points ranks as the largest reading gain in the nation during this period for these students. Mind you, a 209 score for non-Ell and non-special ed students is still terribly low. Only gains will get DC out of the cellar, however, and DC banked solid gains during this period.

If you combine 4th and 8th grade reading gains for general education students, and only look at Free and Reduced lunch eligible students for a bit of socio-economic apples to apples, here is what you find:

DC students had the largest general education 4th grade reading gains in the country, and tie for first in the combined 4th and 8th grade reading gains. The District of Columbia, in short, made very substantial reading gains during the 2007-2011 period.

The Book on Rhee’s DC tenure: Pretty Good, Let’s Move On

November 4, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the 2011 NAEP would be the first real book on Michelle Rhee’s tenure running DCPS. The 2009 NAEP was a little early, and the 2013 numbers and those going forward will be owned increasingly by those in charge after Rhee, for better or worse.

So this morning I tried to devise a rough and ready analysis that would be informative (if certainly not definitive) and that I could run before making breakfast for the kids (Mrs. Ladner is off on a well-deserved vacation, daddy is gasping for air).

Here is what I came up with: Rhee took command in 2007, so I use the 2007 NAEP scores as the baseline. We all know the level of academic achievement is terrible in DC, but it was when Rhee got there as well, so I decided to focus on growth in scores.

Finally, DC has experienced a good amount of gentrification in recent years, so I chose to focus on the growth of free and reduced lunch eligible children on all four main NAEP exams (4R, 4M, 8R, 8M) for the 2007-2011 period.

Here’s what came out:

That’s pretty close to the top. Rhee’s critics will be quick to note that DC’s gains between 2003 and 2007 were also large. We of course can never know the counterfactual DC’s scores may have been due for a stall, or they may have kept up the same pace whether Rhee had shaken the District up or not. We’ll never know.

The most important point is: DC scores are still a disaster despite the large gains before, during and after Rhee. Rhee has moved on, but the rotten scores are still there.

DC policymakers, in my opinion, should now look to take a deeper dive on reform. Why does the District’s budget continue to swell when the enrollment continues to shrink? If money were allowed to truly follow the child, you’d see an even more robust charter school movement in the District.

When will the District finally clean up the special education disaster? Many blame it on the lawyers, but go and look at the scores in the post below: these guys are shooting fish in a barrel. Special needs vouchers could play an important role in a comprehensive plan to clean up the special needs mess in DC (no litigation, no ultra-Cadillac placements).

While the needle is moving in the right direction in DC, I believe that the Cool Kids came out of the experience sadder, wiser and undeterred. That’s for the best.

Some Thoughts in Advance of NAEP ’11 Release

October 27, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

NAEP is going to release the 2011 Reading and Mathematics results on November 1st. I thought it would be interesting to boldly make some predictions in advance. Here’s my first one: the 2011 results won’t be all that different from the 2009 results.

I know, I’m going waaaaay out on a limb here, but that’s my prediction and I am sticking to it.

While a number of states have engaged in far-reaching reforms, the vast majority of these efforts still lie in the implementation stage. Possible exceptions in my mind include Washington D.C., Louisiana and Florida.

For DC, the 2011 NAEP will constitute the first plausible check on the tenure of Michelle Rhee. DCPS began making substantial math and reading progress in the mid 1990s, with huge gains but with scores still low. Assuming normal lags between changes and impacts, I believe that the 2009 NAEP arrived a bit early. I’ll be very interested to see what happens with the 2011 scores. Washington DC is also experiencing gentrification, so I will look at the free and reduced lunch numbers.

Louisiana will be a very interesting case, as some important statewide reforms still remain in the implementation phase, but where New Orleans has been in serious reform mode since 2005. I’ll take a look at the trend in urban numbers.

Florida of course enjoyed a steady increase in NAEP scores since 1998. Florida lawmakers also instituted a fresh set of far-reaching reforms in 2011, but the verdict on those will come years down the road. Governor Crist failed to pursue far-reaching reforms of his own, and vetoed some of those that reached his desk. Florida’s scores may rise again, but I won’t be surprised if they hit a plateau.

The Great Recession may also make this NAEP a little less incremental that usual. It will be interesting to see what happens to scores in the “Sand States” with the greatest property crashes (Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada) in addition to other states with acute economic distress like Michigan.

I will look with some interest at Arizona’s scores. Not only is the state face down on the economic canvass, with house building and flipping having been signature industries before the pop, it is possible that the infamous SB 1070 may lead to the illusion of progress in Hispanic scores. To the extent that the already partially overturned SB 1070 convinced undocumented families to leave Arizona, it may create the appearance of academic improvement.

Outside of that, I’ll be looking for pleasant surprises. Tell me what you are interested in seeing from the 2011 NAEP in the comments.

Rhee Resignation

October 13, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Robert Enlow, Greg, Virginia Walden Ford,  Lance Izumi, Lisa Snell and I weigh in on the Rhee resignation in School Reform News.


The Cool Kids put on a brave face in the New York Times.

Rotherham wisely notes that if Gray is going to kill reform, he will do it later in a series of pillow-smotherings rather than in some obvious fashion.

WaPo columnist McCartney on the Rhee aftermath.

Finally, the WaPo produced this sobering “Man on the Street” reaction video showing DC residents having far more sympathy with ineffective teachers than the students in the schools.

Merit Pay Bust

September 22, 2010

For some time now I have expressed disillusionment with merit pay as an ed reform strategy. In a paper Stuart Buck and I produced last spring for a Harvard conference on performance incentives we wrote:

All of this leads us to measured skepticism about the merit of merit pay, unless coupled with other reforms such as competition between schools. After all, merit pay boils down to an attempt to recreate a market system within a tightly controlled state monopoly. This is an objective fraught with peril. Even if wise and benevolent state actors manage to get the incentives right at a particular moment in time in a particular place, their actions can always be undone by immediate successors. Those successors may well be more influenced by the powerful special interests that want to block merit pay, loosen the standards, or even to call a system “merit pay” while rewarding behavior that has no relation to actual achievement.

Now we have additional reasons for skepticism.  A well-designed random-assignment experiment led by Vanderbilt’s Matt Springer found:

While the general trend in middle school mathematics performance was upward over the period of the project, students of teachers randomly assigned to the treatment group (eligible for bonuses) did not outperform students whose teachers were assigned to the control group (not eligible for bonuses).

Keep in mind that this experiment only tests whether financial incentives increase teacher motivation, resulting in higher student achievement.  It does not address whether merit pay might change the composition of the teacher labor force, attracting and retaining more effective teachers.

Still, color me even more skeptical about the promise of merit pay as an ed reform strategy.  It may well be that the current crop of teachers we have believe that they are doing their best, so offering them money for trying harder doesn’t result in a significant change in effort.  And given the political and organizational barriers to merit pay, I hold out little hope that a well-designed program can be sustained long enough to effect the composition of the teacher labor market.

In the last week, I hope ed reformers have learned that we can’t really improve the school system by maintaining the same centralized system while trying to sneak a reformer into the control-room (a la Michelle Rhee).  And I also hope we’ve learned that we can’t tinker with the incentives within that same centralized system ( a la merit pay).  The key to effective reform is decentralization of control via school choice, including charters, vouchers, tax credits, weighted student funding, etc…
(edited for typos)

Heroic Reformer Theory Fails

September 15, 2010

Yesterday’s defeat of Adrian Fenty in DC and the likely ouster of heroic school reform superintendent, Michelle Rhee, should remind all of us of the very real limits of the heroic reformer theory of school reform.  That theory holds that we just need to place the right people in positions of power in the school system and then support their heroic efforts with supplemental funding and political support.

The main problem with maintaining centralized government control over schooling and just changing who controls that centralized system is that the forces of the status quo have enormous incentives and even stronger ability to recapture control even if they temporarily lose it.

Rhee was probably pushing for the many good reforms, but the more she pushed for them the more incentive the edublob had to win the next election, remove her from office, and undo her efforts.  And eventually they did.

Happily, DC is also decentralizing control over the school system, especially with its large and growing charter sector.  Whoever is in charge of the  DC public school district, that person will be in charge of a shrinking organization.  The right way to reform DC is to make it easy for everyone who wants to leave a failing school to do so.  That can’t be as easily reversed as changing the person who is charge of a centralized system.

The Lioness in the Winter?

September 9, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’m seeing increasing eduland chatter that DC Mayor Adrian Fenty is trouble in his reelection bid.  Rick Hess provides an on the scene view of what is at risk:

When it comes to teacher evaluation, the teacher contract, textbook distribution, special education, scheduling, data systems, and much else, Rhee’s team has gotten DCPS to the point where it is functional. It isn’t yet an especially good school system, but it’s no longer broken and it’s positioned to be something much more.

I’m even a bit more bullish than this on DCPS. In our rankings of state NAEP performance for ALEC’s Report Card on American Education, DC came up with the second highest overall gains between 2003 and 2009, behind only Florida. The NAEP gains in the District predate Rhee’s tenure, but accelerated between 2007 and 2009.  If the Fenty/Rhee regime survives, an academic golden age of improvement lies within the grasp of the long-troubled district.

If not, it will likely take longer. The bottom-up pressure on DCPS in the form of a large and growing charter school sector will remain.  I have some hope that the union’s pillow smothering of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program might be reversed after many of their minions are forced out of Congress.

That's my lobbying job! No MINE!!!!!

The path to reform is difficult. There have been and will continue to be bitter losses along the way. For the sake of the 56% of DC 4th graders who still can’t read at a Basic level despite the progress to date, I hope that prematurely losing Rhee will not be one of them.

Rhee Looks to Clean Up the DC Special Ed Barn with vouchers

July 23, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

There is a new contender in the race to enact the next McKay Scholarship-like voucher program for children with special needs: DCPS, led by the reigning Queen of the Cool Kids Michelle Rhee.

The Washington Times has the story.

This makes sooooo much sense. Special needs parents have been successfully suing their way to Cadillac Ferrari judgements and six-figure per year private school placements for years. Before you start to feel sorry for DCPS, it is worth noting their historical abysmal performance in fundamental tasks such as teaching children reading and math. We have almost zero reason to think that DCPS did anything better than catastrophically bad on average in dealing with the needs of special needs children. 

Also note, as Jay does on an as-needed-basis, that the horror stories of such placements routinely fail to note that the amounts involved typically constitute a rounding error of the total public school budget. DCPS does suffer from an unusual combination of its own historically high level of incompetence (they seem to lose early and often in court) and a group of sophisticated special needs attorneys who have become quite skilled at shooting fish in the DCPS barrell.

At times in the past, I have seen rather intellectually sloppy attempts to use the DCPS as a cautionary tale to warn people off of the idea of enacting a voucher program for special needs children. Well, let’s wipe this bug off the bottom of our boot again: a McKay program allows parents to leave for another public or private school only with (at maximum) the allegedly inadequate funding provided for the child’s education.

For decades, the claim made by the public school establishment in lobbying for higher special education funding has been that they have had no choice but to transfer endless billions of dollars out of general education budgets to fund special education.

Back in 2004, my friends at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and I caught Texas districts red-handed quantifying the amounts transfered from general to special education. Usually such claims are made by lobbyists in private conversations, or as unsupported legislative testimony, but TPPF found someone who had written it down:

…Figures presented to the Texas Legislature by officials from Regional Education Service Center 20. Public school officials in Texas relate that the state and federal government inadequately fund special education in Texas. Representatives of Education Regional Service Center 20 recently presented information before the House Select Committee on Public School Finance regarding the disparity between special education funding and special education spending in the San Antonio, Northside, Northeast, Alamo Heights and Floresville Independent School Districts.

In each district, representatives provided figures showing that districts spent hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars more on special education services than the funding they received from state and federal sources. While school district expenditures exceeded government funding for special education, the decision to spend monies above and beyond government funds was a decision made by the districts. The exact nature of excess expenditure is unknown. Whether additional monies were necessary or simply elective spending was not identified. Nor is it known if these expenditures were required to underwrite the cost of delivering government-mandated services.

In San Antonio ISD, Education Regional Service Center 20 figures show a disparity of $8,163 more spent than received per full time equivalent special education student. The disparity figures for the Northside, North East, Alamo Heights and Floresville districts were $3,536, $4,521, $7,992 and $2,949 respectively.

Any disparity between special education funding and special education spending must come at the expense of general education spending. Because education dollars are limited, money is diverted away from regular classroom instruction when districts decide to spend additional funds above and beyond government funding for special education.

The Education Regional Service Center 20 figures, for example, show that the San Antonio ISD spent over $17 million more on special education services than received from the state. Under HB 2465, every special needs student departing from San Antonio ISD with a Freedom Scholarship, despite having special education funding included, would lift a substantial funding burden from the district, freeing resources to either focus more on the remaining special education students, or for general education programs, or for some combination thereof.

So in other words, a voucher program allowing kids to leave with their normal allotment of general education funding and their special education funding would save the district money with each transfer.

So a McKay Program in DCPS would democratize access to private schools for all children with special needs from those who can access specialized attorneys to everyone. No one gets a Ferrari plan from McKay, just to opportunity to walk away with the money allotted for your child. The District spares itself a Ferrari payment and reduces the need to transfer general education funds.

Oh, and by the way, such a program would vastly increase the satisfaction of parents across a whole array of school measures.

Incentives and Motivation

December 9, 2009

Surely we can find a happy medium?

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I’ve just read a fascinating article – Frederick Herzberg’s “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” from the Harvard Business Review. The 1987 version, an update of the original 1968 article of the same title, went on to become HBR’s most requested reprint ever.

I can see why. Partly it’s the humor value, which  is considerable. “What is the simplest, surest, and most direct way of getting someone to do something?” Herzberg’s first answer: the KITA. (Hint: KIT stands for “Kick In The.” Herzberg claims original authorship of this acronym, and given that the article first appeared in 1968 I believe him.) The KITA comes in many forms, including what Herzberg dubs the “negative physical KITA,” i.e. the literal kick. But there are numerous problems with using the negative physical KITA to motivate employees, not least that “it directly stimulates the autonomic system, and this often results in negative feedback.” Translation: the subject may kick back.


Negative autonomic feedback

But Herzberg also makes a substantial contribution to organizational theory, one that’s forced me to do some new thinking on the regular debates we have on the role of incentives in education.

After a brief discussion of the negative physical KITA, Herzberg moves on to what he dubs the “negative psychological KITA,” i.e. making people feel bad unless they do something. The advantages of the negative psychological KITA over the negative physical KITA are considerable, including: “since the number of psychological pains that a person can feel is almost infinite, the direction and site possibilities of the KITA are increased many times”; “the person administering the kick can manage to be above it all and let the system accomplish the dirty work”; and “finally, if the employee does complain, he or she can always be accused of being paranoid; there is no tangible evidence of an actual attack.”

But it is pretty clear to most people that both types of negative KITA do not really produce what we usually call “motivation.” What they produce is movement. The subject moves, but does not become motivated. Hence – and this is the important part – the method is of limited effectiveness. As long as you keep applying KITAs the subject will keep moving, but only as long as you keep kicking and only as far as you kick. To be really effective, you need to do something to get the subject to keep moving – produce ongoing motivation.

Hence most organizations, sensibly enough, turn to positive incentives and discourage managers from using negative ones. And here things get really interesting. Herzberg argues that most of the positive incentives normally used in an attempt to produce motivation are really very similar in their outcomes to negative KITAs – producing movement rather than motivation. The subject subjectively experiences them as positive rather than negative, but objectively the result in terms of work output is similar. You’re just pulling rather than pushing. The subject only moves as long and as far as you pull. Herzberg thus gives these incentives the somewhat paradoxical label “positive KITAs.”

A positive KITA?

Herzberg’s examples of positive KITAs include pay and benefit increases, reduction in work hours, and improved workplace relations (i.e. communications and “sensitivity” training for managers, morale surveys and “worker suggestion” plans).

The positive KITA, Herzberg argues, despite being ubiquitous in the business world, is actually not much more effective than the negative – and it’s a lot more expensive. This is especially true since positive KITAs (unlike negative ones) must be progressive. If you give the worker a $500 bonus this year, when last year you gave him a $1,000 bonus, this objectively positive action will actually be subjectively experienced as negative.

Herzberg argues that a real, self-sustaining motivation can be produced in employees by something he calls “job enrichment.” That sounds like something the warm and fuzzy folks would advocate, but Herzberg actually spends a good deal of time taking the warm and fuzzy folks to task for their inanity. (This provides much of the humor value. It’s also historically interesting – it’s amazing to see how far the warm and fuzzy disease had already spread by 1968.) What Herzberg is arguing for is something more serious than the label implies.

His underlying psycological and organizational theory is a bit too much to recopy it all here, but here’s a capsule summary. He and others did a large number of empirical studies and found that job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction didn’t usually come from the same sources. For example, having a jerk for a boss produces job dissatisfaction, but having a nice boss usually does not produce any job satisfaction. Niceness in bosses simply prevents workers from feeling dissatisfied; it doesn’t actually make the job satisfying.

The key insight to get here is that removing dissatisfaction doesn’t produce any satisfaction, and highly effective motivation comes from producing satisfaction rather than from removing dissatisfaction.

His meta-analysis of the empirical research finds that pay and benefits, job security, company policy, working conditions and on-the-job relationships are all normally associated with levels of dissatisfaction, but rarely with levels of satisfaction. On the other hand, levels of satisfaction are associated with achievement, recognition for achievement, responsibility, advancement, aspects of the work itself, and development of one’s capacities to do the work.

Herzberg’s idea of “job enrichment” is to increase worker’s experiences of the things that provide high levels of satisfaction. Give workers more responsibility and more opportunity to achieve, and then recognize success – most importantly with advancement that brings still more responsibility and opportunity for achievement. The converse of this is that failure must also be “recognized” – primarily through withholding advancement and responsibility rather than through negative KITAs.

I find his theory and evidence persuasive. And it has helped me see a little more clearly the underlying logic behind some objections to education policies like merit pay.

Yet I don’t think this analysis actually does take anything away from the case for merit pay, still less from the case for other education reforms like school choice. If anything, it makes them stronger. And taking account of this analysis will help us make the case more effectively.

Some of the objections to merit pay are based on an essentially Herzbergian conception of worker motivation. Smart people don’t deny that money plays some role in motivating people to do more work. But even among those who don’t advocate touchy-feely romantic delusions about teachers who are angelic beings with no connection to the material world, there is a lot of skepticism that you can get them to work all that much harder just for “a few extra sheckels” (as one of the more sensible critics once put it in a comment here on this blog).

Yet consider what would have to happen for Herzbergian “job enrichment” to occur in the teaching profession. First of all, you’d need an objective measurement of achievement. Then you’d need to give teachers autonomy in the classroom and hold them accountable for results on that metric. And for the accountability to take the form of advancement and increased autonomy (and accountability), you’d need to remove the one-size-fits-all union scale and work rules that dominate the profession.

In other words, it’s not so much the pay that makes merit pay worth trying, as it is the fact that merit pay creates tangible recognition for success. The current system seems almost deliberately crafted to deny teachers as many opportunities for satisfaction as possible. Merit pay is an attempt to create more such opportunities.

It’s worth noting that Michelle Rhee’s proposed two-track system in DC labels the old, union-dominated track the “red” track and the new, merit-based track the “green” track. Rhee understands that what she’s offering isn’t just, or even primarily, more money. She’s offering DC teachers their professional pride.

But school choice looks even better by this light. Test scores would be a limited basis for creating opportunities for Herzbergian satisfaction. On the other hand, if your objective measurement of job performance is parental feedback, the sky’s the limit. In this context it’s worth noting that Herzberg says the only meaningful measure of job performance is ultimately the client or customer’s satisfaction; using any other measure is taking your eye off the ball.

You could even combine the two to create a truly graduated scale of autonomy and accountability. New teachers could be required to use a standard curriculum and be evaluated on how their students – all types of students, not just the rich white ones – progress in basic skills. (That, of course, is the real primary function of test-based accountability – ensuring that kids who face more challenges aren’t just warehoused for twelve years while the rich white kids get an education.) Teachers who prove they can deliver the goods on reading and math for students of all backgrounds could then be given more classroom autonomy and evaluated based on parental feedback rather than test scores. Freedom from test-based accountability is the payoff for proving you can teach basic skills reliably. Schools could set up any number of intermediate arrangements in between “pure” test scores and “pure” parental feedback, with teachers earning more and more recognition and autonomy as they prove more and more their ability to teach effectively.

Looking back at my previous posts on teacher autonomy and satisfaction levels in public v. private schools, the poisonous influence of one-size-fits-all pay scales, and the union-driven destruction of the teaching profession, I can see this is really the framework I’ve been trying to articulate all along. The unions keep bleating about how teachers should be treated like professionals. I agree. They should have autonomy, like professionals – and they should be held accountable for results.

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