Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pay for performance, Baltimore police style

Dana Goldstein cites a a social science maxim to explain powerful evidence that former D.C.schools Chancellor  Michelle Rhee's heavy incentives for improved test score results led to widespread cheating:
In the social sciences, there is an oft-repeated maxim called Campbell’s Law, named after Donald Campbell, a psychologist who studied human creativity. Campbell’s Law states that incentives corrupt. In other words, the more punishments and rewards—such as merit pay—are associated with the results of any given test, the more likely it is that the test’s results will be rendered meaningless, either through outright cheating or through teaching to the test in a way that narrows the curriculum and renders real learning obsolete.

There's a dramatic illustration of this principle at work (with negative incentives) in The Wire, the HBO series about Baltimore detectives' endless and mainly fruitless struggles against the drug trade (Season 3, episode 1, Time after Time).  A city councilman who's trying to get the police commissioner to dance to his tune flays him and the mayor at a public meeting for high crime stats. Under pressure from the mayor, the commissioner promises to reduce felonies by 5% and keep the year's murder count under 275. The commissioner and deputy commissioner in turn lay the wood to their subordinates. Here's Rawls, the dickish deputy (my rough transcript):

You will reduce the felonies by 5% or more or...let no man come back alive.  In addition, we will hold this year's murders to 275 or less...[there's] no excuse I will accept. I don't care how you do it. Just fuckin' do it.
A world-weary police major named Colvin, just six months away from retirement at the 30-year mark, translates that for us:
We all understand there are certain...processes by which you can reduce overall felonies. You can, ah, reclassify an ag assault or you can unfound a robbery...but, ah, how do you make a body disappear?
 Somehow, it would seem. The commissioner concludes, unfazed:
If you want to continue wearing these oak clusters you will shut up and step up. Anyone who can't bring in the numbers will be replaced by someone who can.
Though I've always been skeptical about "hard" performance incentives, I would add that there does seem to be exciting, important research into what makes an effective teacher, and that finding and fostering such teachers is key to effective school reform. The degree to which standardized testing should be the measure is a complex question.  It's always struck me as dangerous and counterproductive to tie a teacher's pay directly to her students' performance on standardized tests. Outstanding teachers should be rewarded with opportunities for advancement -- and if they don't want to be administrators, that could include developing curriculum and training/mentoring other teachers, roles that should be well compensated.

Tie teacher's pay to test scores and they're likely to perform about as well as mortgage bond investors in the late great meltdown.

More generally, Campbell's Law is often at work in the business world.

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