Presidents and Superintendents: Another Look at P4P

Maybe I have been too hard on plans to pay teachers for raising students’ test scores (See September 15th post). After all, the gold standard used by many entrepreneurial school reformers is the corporate world where pay-for-performance is routine. Even though some CEOs have raked in enormous compensation packages (some of which have been financed by you and me) even after their companies did poorly and even went bankrupt (e.g., AIG, GM, Citigroup, Bank of America), chances of pay-for-performance (P4P in corporate jargon) disappearing is slim. Ditto for education.

The reason is simple. The taken-for-granted assumption that drives people around the globe is that pay-for-performance spurs better results from CEOs, start-up entrepreneurs, eager 4 year-olds getting their first quarter for washing dinner dishes, and superintendents. The assumption is taken as a fact.

Let’s look at a performance-based contract for the new Austin (TX) superintendent and think through the assumptions built into that linkage between earning more money if students and schools do better on state tests.

Meria Carstarphen

New superintendent Meria Carstarphen signed a contract for a base salary of $275,000 plus allowances for a car and housing. She and the Board of Trustees agreed to two bonus clauses. The first awards her $25,000 if she raises individual schools from “acceptable” to “recognized” or “exemplary” and if she raises state ratings for reading, writing, math, and other subjects. The second bonus of $22,500 kicks in if she turns around three failing secondary schools (“Academically Unacceptable” in Texas-talk) and receives a state rating of “Acceptable” by June 2010. Total P4P available to the Austin Superintendent: $47,500 if, and this is one big “if,” she raises the state ratings as stipulated.

The assumption is that a big city superintendent can reach into schools and classrooms to get principals and teachers to work harder and students to do better on tests.

Imagine that the U.S. Congress wrote a P4P plan for President Obama. A clause says that his salary would be boosted an additional $250,000 if he can get Iran to stop building a nuclear bomb or $500,000 more if he can reduce unemployment to less than 4 percent. On its face, it is silly even to suggest P4P for U.S. Presidents.

Money does not drive Barack Obama (or drove George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, etc.) to work the long hours, put his family on display, travel incessantly, wrestle with legislators, meet with world leaders, give endless speeches, and put America’s soldiers in harm’s way. Other values, other ambitions, other incentives spur Presidents to turn their lives inside out, not money.

There is another reason why P4P for Presidents is silly. Barack Obama does not directly solve any of the above problems. The policy chain—oops! The spaghetti strands of policy (see September 9, 2009 post)—are far too attenuated, far too squishy for someone at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to push or pull in one direction to affect Biloxi or Beverly Hills residents. The President has to work through those he appoints (e.g., Arne Duncan), many other non-appointed career civil servants, and even larger numbers of elected legislators to get at the American people who register their support or opposition to his policies.

But he can create a policy direction. He can use his limited powers, his persuasive skills, and various incentives (and threats also) to get some of what he seeks. Can he and Arne Duncan, for example, turn around 5000 “dropout factories?” No, of course not. He has to use limited power, dollops of cash, and other incentives to entice many, many others to do the work.

What about Meria Carstarphen? The linkages between the Austin Superintendent, her district office administrators, principals, teachers, and students are closer to policy pasta than links in an iron chain. Like the President, she has to create a climate that prods and supports those who work directly with principals to make changes and those 100-plus principals, in turn, have to work with nearly 6,000 teachers who teach lessons that may or may not produce student gains on tests. It is unclear , however, whether that improved climate converted into resources that were astutely applied and whether savvy staff did what had to be done. What is clear is that it won’t happen in a year and if the Superintendent collects any of the bonuses, it will be because of actions taken under her predecessor and luck.

And this is why P4P for superintendents is not about effective leaders producing higher test scores. It is a political symbol reinforcing a myth that an individual can turn around a district. Such pay-for-performance plans signal the media and community that school boards are following the corporate gold standard. Signals and symbols, however, are no better than rubbing a rabbit’s foot for luck when it comes to improving teaching and learning.

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