Wednesday, July 27, 2011

merit pay for parents

Recently there has been a lot of talk about the concept of merit pay in the educational system as a way to improve results. Personally I have always had a problem with this approach for a number of reasons. First, a meritocracy requires a metric. The metric in education is essentially a person's eventual success (happiness?) in life. How can you measure this and reward in a way that is reactionary (ie improves the current system)? If you tie compensation to a metric then people tend to focus on improving on that metric to the exclusion of everything else. I recently read a comment somewhere about a CEO who decided to tie a small part of his direct reports' compensation to a metric that was intended to represent about 10% of that person's job duties. The result was that those people spent almost 90% of their time trying to make sure they met that 10% duty.

Second, focusing on merit pay for teachers ignores the roles of other factors in educational success. Many 'reform' organizations are quick to qualify their claims of teacher quality being the most important factor in educational success by adding that its only the most important in-school factor, i.e., admitting that there are other, more important factors that may lie outside of the school environment. So we might not only be ignoring the real factors in success, but we could be making the problem worse by choosing 'reform' that has negative consequences in the school environment.

I also have a concern about whether merit pay is tenable in our political and economic reality. There are many who already believe we spend too much money on education and even many of those admit teachers are often (though not always) underpaid. This means having a truly successful merit pay system would cost us more money, not less; probably a LOT more. Granted, we'd be getting something good from it, but I think that ignores the fact that not everybody is willing to spend more money even if it means a better 'product'. Just look at how we prioritize cost vs quality in our throw-away consumer economy. This would be even more of a problem given the current, 'anti-tax' leaning of today's society.

So, I guess my question is, for those people who believe merit pay elicits results, perhaps we can think about what it is in education that causes success and how we can incentivize that behavior. In other words, what about providing an incentive to be a good parent? Admittedly, that may be too controversial given the myriad cultures we have in this country. At minimum, how about making sure we have a society and support structure that makes it easier for people to be good parents. Obviously, we should question whether it is even possible to 'incentivize' cultural behavior (that same concern should apply to the educational system culture as well), but if we are going to focus on incentivizing something, perhaps we should at least try to make it something that makes a difference.


PoliticAli said...

Welcome back Navigio. It looks like Europe has reinvigorated you. You make some very good points. In my 30+ years of running a company I was always afraid of individual incentives because I worried that the focus, as you pointed out in your example, then becomes the individual instead of the organization or the task at hand. Though I did set up a system of quarterly bonuses for the entire staff (at our height we had about 550 employees, went down to 225 when the bubble burst and back up to 290 when I retired.) in proportion to their base pay, based on the profit. The percentage of the profit distributed increased dramatically with the percentage of the profit so that at our height the bonuses were as large as about 20% of the base pay. But I digress.

I think metrics, indicators and feedback are illusive in complex settings which teaching is. I like your illusion to a child’s happiness in adulthood as a good metric. (A neighbor of Nepal’s has a minister of happiness in the cabinet.) Your point on incentivising good parenting is not as far fetched as you might think. I believe that children are a societal asset more than just a familial one. And anything we can do to improve the future contribution of a child to society is a benefit to all of us and by the way, their contribution also improves their “happiness”. Recently I have been thinking about looking for some charity that somehow teaches parenting and maybe helps parents spend quality time with their kids. I have even thought about something like young or retired people volunteering to help with household chores so that an over-stretched parent can have time and energy to read to a child at night. I recognize that this is probably impractical and agree with you that the solution really is in some types of policies that will allow better parenting where it is needed. Our current system encourages, if not forces both parents, if there are two in a household, to work whereas the “Christian Democratic” systems in Germany and Southern European countries, through tax and labor laws makes it easy for one parent to stay home.

I look forward to seeing more of your posts now that you are back at it.

navigio said...

:-) thanks politicali, europe always does that to me. fyi, someone recently made me aware of this organization:
mothers club

Obviously its not in your area, but they do exactly what you are hinting at. they help parents (specifically low-income and at-risk/teen ones) learn how to manage the things it takes to be a parent. this includes literacy training, health and cooking training, general life skills, etc. Unfortunately they are only a volunteer organization so their reach is limited, but the idea, imho, is right on. I dont know whether it is a chapter of something larger, but they probably would have some suggestions about things in your area (if they happen to know of any, that is).

Going to europe always gets me thinking about the role of policies. a while ago, you posted a bunch of numbers from (i think) the economist data sheet about different countries. I think it was mostly numerical metrics, but i think it would be cool if someone were to do a policy and structural comparison of countries. I know it wouldnt explain everything, but it probably would help to show the role that certain factors play.

your bonus points are interesting. i have been part of a few companies that offered these. the irony was that there are many positions within the company where one's role in increasing the metric (in your case profit) wasnt always obvious. R&D could do a great job but sales might drop the ball and no one gets anything, or vice versa. just as in education, the incentive process itself isnt necessarily bad, its just difficult to design one that truly acts as incentive and does so in a fair way.

I hope I can remain envigorated.. :-)

PoliticAli said...

I contacted the Mother's Club and asked about any in our area. Could'nt find any on the internet. If not I may try to start something in Worcester but havn't the foggiest as to how to go about it.

navigio said...

Hi Politicali. I dont have many contacts back East, but I do know some people who are connected who might. I will ask around and see what I can dig up. :-)

PoliticAli said...

Thanks, I appreciate it. If you ever get to the Boston area I would like to buy you a coffee. Whole milk of course.