This piece is part of a leadership roundtable on the right way to approach teacher incentives — with opinion pieces by Duke University behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Howard Gardner, and Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein.
In recent years there seems to have been a surge in academic dishonesty across many high schools. No doubt this can be explained in part by increased vigilance and reporting, greater pressure on students to succeed, and the communicable nature of dishonest behavior (when people see others do something, whether it’s tweaking a resume or parking illegally, they’re more likely to do the same).
But, I also think that a fourth, significant cause in this worrisome trend has to do with the way we measure and reward teachers.
To think about the effects of these measurements, let’s first think about corporate America, where measurement of performance has a much longer history. Recently I met with one of the CEOs I most respect, and he told me a story about when he himself messed up the incentives for his employees, by over-measurement. A few years earlier he had tried to create a specific performance evaluation matrix for each of his top employees, and he asked them to focus on optimizing that particular measure; for some it was selection of algorithms, for others it was return on investment for advertising, and so on. He also changed their compensation structure so that 10 percent of their bonus depended on their performance relative to that measure.
What he quickly found was that his top employees did not focus 10 percent of their time and efforts on maximizing that measure, they gave almost all of their attention to it. This was not such good news, because they began to do anything that would improve their performance on that measure even by a tiny bit—even if they messed up other employees in the process. Ultimately they were consumed with maximizing what they knew they would be measured on, regardless of the fact that this was only part of their overall responsibility. This kind of behavior falls in line with the phrase “you are what you measure,” which is the idea that once we measure something we make it salient and motivational, and people start over-focusing on it and neglecting other aspects of their job or life.
So how does this story of mis-measurements in corporate America relate to teaching? I suspect that any teachers reading this see the parallels. The mission of teaching, and its evaluation, is incredibly intricate and complex. In addition to being able to read, write, and do some math and science, we want students to be knowledgeable, broad-minded, creative, lifelong learners. On top of that, we can all readily agree that education is a long-term process that sometimes takes many years to come to fruition. With all of this complexity and difficulty of figuring out what makes good teaching, it is also incredibly difficult to accurately and comprehensively evaluate how well teachers are doing.