RALEIGH — Try something new? I’m all for it. But whether you are talking about changing your diet, changing your career, or changing your government’s public policy, it’s often wise to proceed in stages.
Instead of junking your regular fare entirely, for example, you sample new foods and see which ones please both your taste buds and your digestive system. Instead of quitting your boring but stable job to pursue your dream of headlining a magic show in Las Vegas, you test your illusionist skills before audiences at birthdays, schools, and local clubs.
When it comes to public policy, where you are risking someone else’s time and money instead of just your own, a good approach is to create pilot programs to see if what works on paper — or in other jurisdictions — is likely to work where you are.
During its 2016 legislative session, the North Carolina General Assembly created several pilot programs to test the effectiveness of performance pay in public schools. One $10 million program will provide bonuses to the top-performing 25 percent of third-grade reading teachers statewide as well as the top-performing 25 percent of fourth-grade reading teachers within each school district.
Teachers won’t be evaluated simply on the basis of how high their students score on tests. That would tell you more about the characteristics of the kids being tested than about the instructional value added by their teachers. Instead, the system will use the average student growth — how well the third-graders do on their reading tests compared with how well they did the previous year.
Another pilot program, budgeted at $4.3 million annually, will reward teachers who help their students achieve exceptional results. For every high-schooler who gets a 3 or higher on their Advanced Placement test, the teacher will receive a $50 bonus. For every student who gets a 4 or higher on an International Baccalaureate exam, the teacher will also receive a $50 bonus.
For teachers who work in Career and Technical Education, the legislature created yet another pilot, funded at $600,000. For every CTE student who achieves industry certification in a particular field or skill, the teacher will receive bonuses of $25 or $50, depending on the CTE course.
While I believe performance pay is necessary in public education — as in most other professions and fields — I think these pilots may help North Carolina policymakers explore some related questions that have yet to be answered conclusively. Here’s the key one: Is performance pay about incentivizing or identifying?
One possible use of performance pay is to encourage teachers to improve their effectiveness, either by working harder or worker smarter. Perhaps the promise of financial rewards will lead to higher levels of sustained effort, or to teachers acquiring new skills, through continuing education or emulation of peers, that translate into better instruction of their students.
Another way performance pay might be useful, however, is simply to identify the best teachers, retain them in the profession for longer periods of time, and perhaps give them additional compensation to take on more duties, such as mentoring teachers, or more challenging assignments, such as teaching disadvantaged children.
These two mechanisms are quite different, although they could of course coexist within the same schools or districts. Based on past empirical research, my guess is that the identification mechanism is likely to be the more common one. It doesn’t assume that large numbers of teachers will change their behavior in response to financial incentives. In fact, it works the other way — the incentives represent principals, superintendents, and policymakers changing their behavior in response to measurements of teacher performance.
The good news is that the identification mechanism is all we need to make significant progress. If by using value-added test scores and passage rates we can reliably identify the most skillful and innovative teachers in North Carolina, and can then use higher pay and other means of keeping and deploying them effectively, the benefits to students, families, and North Carolina as a whole could be quite large.
John Hood, chairman of the John Locke Foundation, is the author of “Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.”