Give teachers productivity tools

Teachers can follow the private-sector model — pay for performance — if they have the right productivity tools, argues Merrill Vargo of the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative.

Improvement and innovation bloom in any industry when the people doing the work — that means both managers and line workers — benefit from four crucial ingredients:

Incentive to do better.

Access to the best ideas about what successful competitors are doing.

Real-time data about current performance.

The flexibility to make needed changes.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s merit pay proposal provides incentives, writes Vargo. But teachers need more.

First, access to the best ideas. The private sector calls this benchmarking. Business leaders take for granted that if you want to improve something, you start by looking at what your peers are doing. Pepsi studies Coca-Cola; Burger King scrutinizes McDonald’s. But people who work in schools rarely get this privilege. Most teachers work all day in their classrooms without the benefit of peer feedback or advice from experts in their field.

In the private sector, leading companies routinely invest in professional development. But in public education, professional development is the first thing on the chopping block when budgets get tight.

Next up: Provide teachers with real-time data about how their kids are doing. Again, no business would expect to increase quality without a system to measure daily and weekly progress. But we don’t do that in education.

Students are tested once a year on state standards, and teachers wait months for the results. There are “quickly administered diagnostic assessments” with instant results on the market, but most schools don’t earmark funding for them.

Finally: Give educators the flexibility to make necessary change. So far, none of the much-vaunted flexibility to innovate enjoyed by charter schools has rubbed off on the rest of the school system.

BASRC folks are liberals. Smart liberals. It’s significant that Vargo is supporting data-driven improvement in teaching and linking teacher pay to student achievement. This wouldn’t have happened a few years ago.

See Eduwonk for the latest on reactionaries defending the status quo in California. The reactionaries are union-dependent Democrats, writes Eduwonk. Their victims are Democratic reformers.

Virginia Postrel’s political split —dynamists who can handle disruptive change versus stasists who can’t — increasingly applies to education. It’s not really a question of left or right, Democrat or Republican. It’s about people who are willing to try whatever it takes to educate kids and people who focus on defending the existing system,.

About Joanne


  1. Joanne, this business model looks much like America’s Choice, the whole school reform created by the National Center for Education and the Economy. It’s a program with all the bullet points.

    But here is the problem: Do teachers know how to teach? Where do they learn it? I think if you study teaching, you’ll find that teachers and the profession believe that teaching is whatever any teacher wants it to be. They make it up as they go, they invent and refine based on personal experience rather than some protocol. In fact, there are no protocols to speak of.

    Thus benchmarking is a near impossible and useless task without protocols and procedures that are shared.

    So here’s what I think: this is all fine and good, but until these folks can tell you how to teach and how to do it better, this won’t fly. It’s like teaching a medical student anatomy, and then dropping him into an OR with the goal of doing an appendectomy. Knowing anatomy and doing surgery are totally different things.

  2. Mad Scientist says:

    OK, I have said a lot on the merits of merit pay. I work in the private sector and this is the third company I have worked for that has had some form of merit pay (the second that reaches ALL levels down to the secretarial staff) Here are the problems with the model put forth.

    Incentive to do better.

    Just the fact that there is the possibility of a bonus is the incentive to do better. However nebulous, yet well-defined that term is, the bonus needs to be keyed to measurable goals that are clearly communicated to the people.

    In the system I am currently in, there are 6 distinct levels for different bonus opportunity. The level you are in depends upon how closely your job is tied to the overall performance of the company.

    For example, secretarial staff and other hourly people have their bonus paid depending upon the financial performance of the company and some site-specific goals (safety performance and a local measure of productivity). There is no payout tied specifically to individual goals.

    The next level up has the financial performance of the company, division specific goals, and some personal goals.

    The higher you go in the organization, the more your bonus is tied to the performance of your personal goals.

    However, if there is a payout (nothing is guaranteed, which is what some people have a hard time accepting), each specific level has a maximum payout. For the bottom level it is 10%; for the top level it is 50%. So, if there is a payout, everyone at a specific level gets something (based on company/division financials) and differences are based on individual performance. This should eliminate the majority of the complaints of “favoritism”.

    Access to the best ideas about what successful competitors are doing.

    This is where one must keep on top of the game professionally. By attending professional conferences (professional development) and as members of professional societies, people get *gasp* ideas of what is working well.

    Since the cost of these conferences (including travel) is deductable, consider it a part of your responsibility. My wife (a teacher) goes to one conference a year, and IF she gets even partially reimbursed, she considers herself lucky. She considers it a requirement of her job.

    Real-time data about current performance.

    A pipe dream. We have access to all sorts of meaningless data. However, we make do with monthly (and quarterly) reporting agiinst goals. Deal with it.

    The flexibility to make needed changes.

    Most people are somewhat rational. If you can make a real case for a change, make it! Not some wishy-washy “because I want to”, but a real case with the costs and benefits spelled out. WHY you think it is a good idea. Sell it.

  3. ucladavid says:

    The biggest problem in schools today is not pay for seniority; it is tenure. I am a first year social studies teacher and I get new students into my classroom every few weeks or so from different schools or students who moved up from sheltered. The students tell me that I do something weird that their old history teacher (who has tenure) didn’t do; I actually teach. I rarely yell or scream. I do a lot of student-centered learning. Some students don’t like the fact that I give homework or my tests and quizzes are not extremely easy. However, they do appreciate the fact that I actually do teach in the classroom. Most kids would rather have a good teacher than an easy teacher or a lousy teacher. Therefore, instead of merit pay, get rid of the bad teachers.

  4. Yes, Vargo is a “smart liberal.”

    Well, actually a new liberal.

    Many of us want Bush prosecuted for war crimes yet we support his education philosophy–which happens to be progressive if not radical.

    We need to steal these ideas away from the Republicans and distance ourselves from the Gore-Kerry anti-voucher pro union days of the past.

    Vargo’s piece is right on target. It’s a wonder Ms. Jacobs didn’t write it herself.

  5. Mike in Texas says:

    His article is typical rubbish. It assumes that things like good working conditions for teachers are necessarily bad for children. This article is basically Business Roundtable propaganda, or who knows, maybe even paid for by the Dept. of Education

  6. Yeah, but it’s rubbish for reason’s other then the one’s you’ve provide. No suprise there.

    It’s rubbish because it ignores one fundamental difference between private enterprise and the public education system which is that there’s no equivalent of bankruptcy on the public education side.

    If there’s no possiblity of organizational extinction then there are no penalties for approaching organizationaly extinction; no drop in credit rating or stock price or demands by suppliers for cash.

    And if there are no worries about failure there’s no reason to pursue success.

    Even worse then the absence of any punishment for failure is that absence of any rewards for success.

    Whether it’s teacher of the year or best school in the state, it doesn’t matter. Next year there’ll be another teacher of the year and no one will remember this years teacher of the year. Next year there’ll be another “best school” and this year’s best school will proudly hand over its award to the new recipient having recieved nothing but a smidgen of short-lived notoriety.

    It’s all the same whether you do good or you do bad so why exert yourself?

  7. Allen, very well put!

  8. It assumes that things like good working conditions for teachers are necessarily bad for children.

    Funny, I read the article and I don’t see that. What I see is someone arguing, rightly, that merit pay alone will do nothing. The key to success in any endeavor is not how much effort one puts out, it’s how much effort one puts into the right things.

    The only thing missing is what JennyD points out, which is that educators don’t agree on what those right things are. In the area of benchmarking, charters can prove particularly useful, since they are sources of data on a wide variety of education philosophies, from military school to Summerhill and almost everything between. We have the opportunity now to see what works and implement it elsewhere as a benchmark.

    One other point, I think Vargo is arguing for a significant bettering of working conditions for teachers by calling for flexibility. Every school is different, therefore every school needs to handle its kids differently. Heck, you can say the same thing about classes. The thing teachers need is room to adapt to their students, and in this case the ‘infamously long “Education Code,”‘ as Vargo puts it, is a hinderance.

    In closing, Vargo is one of the few arguing that teachers need *better* (more professional) working conditions for merit pay to work.