Don’t Be Fooled: Money Does Matter In Education

Gov. Dennis Daugaard picked up on a popular meme this year when he talked about the relationship between education outcomes and funding. Pointing to relatively flat student achievement scores and increased state funding for education, he concluded that simply pumping more money into the system is not an acceptable solution.

Daugaard is not the first governor to state that conclusion in recent years, nor will he be the last, I’m willing to bet.

We’ve also heard the same sentiment voiced during debates on the funding of the Yankton School District. The argument goes that $2 million can be cut from the budget with no effect on education quality. In fact, it seems that some think cutting funds may actually improve education.

However, the body of research in the issue shows the opposite. Money does indeed matter. You can spend money foolishly, of course. But spending it on the right things does have a positive impact. These is, of course, still plenty of debate about what the “right things” are.

Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker recently wrote “Revisiting the Age-Old Question: Does Money Matter in Education?” The brief reviews the body of research on spending and educational quality.

Here is the executive summary of his findings:

This policy brief revisits the long and storied literature on whether money matters in providing a quality education. Increasingly, political rhetoric adheres to the unfounded certainty that money doesn’t make a difference in education, and that reduced funding is unlikely to harm educational quality. Such proclamations have even been used to justify large cuts to education budgets over the past few years. These positions, however, have little basis in the empirical research on the relationship between funding and school quality.

In the following brief, I discuss selected major studies on three specific topics; a) whether money in the aggregate matters; b) whether specific schooling resources that cost money matter; and c) whether substantive and sustained state school finance reforms matter. Regarding these three questions, I conclude:

  1. Does money matter? Yes. On average, aggregate measures of per-pupil spending are positively associated with improved or higher student outcomes. In some studies, the size of this effect is larger than in others and, in some cases, additional funding appears to matter more for some students than others. Clearly, there are other factors that may moderate the influence of funding on student outcomes, such as how that money is spent – in other words, money must be spent wisely to yield benefits. But, on balance, in direct tests of the relationship between financial resources and student outcomes, money matters.
  2. Do schooling resources that cost money matter? Yes. Schooling resources which cost money, including class size reduction or higher teacher salaries, are positively associated with student outcomes. Again, in some cases, those effects are larger than others and there is also variation by student population and other contextual variables. On the whole, however, the things that cost money benefit students, and there is scarce evidence that there are more cost-effective alternatives.
  3. Do state school finance reforms matter? Yes. Sustained improvements to the level and distribution of funding across local public school districts can lead to improvements in the level and distribution of student outcomes. While money alone may not be the answer, more equitable and adequate allocation of financial inputs to schooling provide a necessary underlying condition for improving the equity and adequacy of outcomes. The available evidence suggests that appropriate combinations of more adequate funding with more accountability for its use may be most promising.

While there may in fact be better and more efficient ways to leverage the education dollar toward improved student outcomes, we do know the following:

  • Many of the ways in which schools currently spend money do improve student outcomes.
  • When schools have more money, they have greater opportunity to spend productively. When they don’t, they can’t.
  • Arguments that across-the-board budget cuts will not hurt outcomes are completely unfounded.

In short, money matters, resources that cost money matter, and more equitable distribution of school funding can improve outcomes. Policymakers would be well-advised to rely on high-quality research to guide the critical choices they make regarding school finance.

Baker adds in his concluding thoughts:

Given the preponderance of evidence that resources do matter and that state school finance reforms can effect changes in student outcomes, it seems somewhat surprising that not only has doubt persisted, but the rhetoric of doubt seems to have escalated. In many cases, there is no longer just doubt, but rather direct assertions that: schools can do more than they are currently doing with less than they presently spend; the suggestion that money is not a necessary underlying condition for school improvement; and, in the most extreme cases, that cuts to funding might actually stimulate improvements that past funding increases have failed to accomplish.
To be blunt, money does matter. Schools and districts with more money clearly have greater ability to provide higher-quality, broader, and deeper educational opportunities to the children they serve. Furthermore, in the absence of money, or in the aftermath of deep cuts to existing funding, schools are unable to do many of the things they need to do in order to maintain quality educational opportunities. Without funding, efficiency tradeoffs and innovations being broadly endorsed are suspect. One cannot tradeoff spending money on class size reductions against  increasing teacher salaries to improve teacher quality if funding is not there for either – if class sizes are already large and teacher salaries non- competitive. While these are not the conditions faced by all districts, they are faced by many.
It is certainly reasonable to acknowledge that money, by itself, is not a comprehensive solution for improving school quality. Clearly, money can be spent poorly and have limited influence on school quality. Or, money can be spent well and have substantive positive influence. But money that’s not there can’t do either. The available evidence leaves little doubt: Sufficient financial resources are a necessary underlying condition for providing quality education.

Read the entire paper here. It is worth reading the entire document.

How Do We Get Workers To Jobs In The Great Plains?

How do we get workers to jobs in the Great Plains?

It’s a perplexing questions for economic development officials.

We have jobs available in this part of the world. What we are often lacking are the bodies to fill them.

The Press & Dakotan has reported on this subject on a couple of occasions lately, such as here and here.

Columbus, Neb., has faced this same issue for some time and has taken concrete efforts to get people to move to their community. One of the methods they have employed is recruitment trips to Northern Michigan. The region was selected because of its high unemployment and its similar culture to Nebraska.

K.C. Belitz, president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, recently wrote for the Daily Yonder about why it is difficult to get unemployed people to move for new jobs. It’s an enlightening read.

These were skilled people, with talents that are highly sought-after in many places, including Columbus, Nebraska.  As a result of those visits and others, we have learned at least some of the reasons this dichotomy continues to exist in America: the split between tent cities of unemployed and jobs-gone-begging on the Great Plains.

I would offer a few recurring themes that we heard in small towns in northern Michigan, which you would likely hear in Ohio, Illinois, California, Nevada or other high-unemployment states.

Most often, because many of these folks have been unemployed for a long time they have expended virtually all their resources.  So, if you ask them to fund a move to Nebraska, you might as well ask them to fund a relocation to the moon. The money simply isn’t there.

The next challenge many of these families faced was owning a home in a market in which, well, the market no longer exists.  If they had managed to hold on to their house, they knew there was no way to sell it and they clearly could not afford just to leave it behind and start paying rent, much less a second mortgage. Job or no job, they weren’t going to leave their unsold, and unsellable, houses.

Columbus Days celebration in 2009. So, we have skilled people, desperate for a job in many places around the U.S. They aren’t lazy. They just can’t find a way to make the move. At the same time we have employers, desperate for skilled people, in many other places around the U.S., many in rural communities.

For the good of the nation and the good of those families, we need to work toward a solution.

We have suggested to our Congressman, Adrian Smith, (and anyone else who would listen) that somehow federal unemployment benefits could be structured to allow people to take “an advance” on their benefits to use for relocation to a place where they can find work. In this way, the government can stop paying unemployment benefits, an employer gets a needed employee to help keep jobs in our country, and most importantly, a family gets a steady full-time income to support itself.

Is Actress Jennifer Lawrence A Pirate? Seriously, Is She???

Look closely at that photo of Jennifer Lawrence and Academy president Tom Sherak announcing the Oscar nominations Tuesday morning.

Then, look at this photo:

Now, I ask you, is Jennifer Lawrence a pirate or not?

(That, or there was some really bad photoshopping on that leg perhaps?)

I’m not sure why that jumped out at me when looking at a photo in a newspaper this morning, but it did almost immediately. Maybe it’s because it appears that Jennifer has a fake leg.

Again, contrast (and in this photo I first spotted the discrepancy, it is really bad):

And compare:

Woman Arrested For Allegedly Killing Cat With Hammer

For those who were curious about what happened with the cat incident, here is a more complete report. It is also in the Press & Dakotan today.

A Yankton woman was arrested Monday after she allegedly pummeled a cat to death with a hammer.
Mary Thompson, 52, Yankton, was arrested Monday for killing or injuring an animal, which is a misdemeanor.
According to a police report, the manager of Canyon Ridge Apartments called police at 11:40 a.m. Monday and said she had witnessed Thompson killing a cat.
The manager said she had gone to visit Thompson about having two cats in her apartment. Tenants are allowed to have only one.
Thompson had previously told the manager she would be giving one of the cats away. Upon being told that both cats still resided in the apartment, the manager again told Thompson that another home would have to be found for one of them.
At that point, the manager told police, Thompson went to the kitchen, grabbed a small hammer and went to the couch where one of the cats was resting. She then allegedly grabbed the cat by the neck and began to strike it on the head with the hammer.
The manager said she began screaming and fled the apartment in fear because of what she had observed.
Another witness said he later saw Thompson holding what appeared to be a bag and leaving the apartment complex. A blanket was later found in a dumpster near the apartment.
According to a police report, Thompson admitted to police that she had killed the cat and disposed of it in the dumpster before being arrested.
Police chief Brian Paulsen said a search warrant was executed on the apartment Tuesday to see if the second cat was alive and to recover evidence.

Yankton Woman Strikes Cat With Hammer When Told She Has Too Many Felines

A woman is told she can only have one cat in her apartment.

Next thing you know, according to a witness, she has grabbed one of her cats and is bashing it in the head with a hammer.

This is what will appear in the paper tomorrow:

• A report was received at 11:40 a.m. Monday that, after a woman was told she could only have one cat at her residence in the 1700 block of Locust St., she was observed holding the cat and hitting it on the head with a hammer. The suspect was arrested for killing or injuring an animal.

I know you have many questions. Was the cat killed? Was this woman extremely distressed by the thought of having to get rid of one of her cats and just lost it? Does she have mental issues? What are the elements of being arrested for injuring or killing an animal, since putting an animal down for any number of reasons happens in this area with regularity?

I wish I had some answers for you, but the police department didn’t have much to offer today. The officer involved had gone home by the time I called, and his report on the incident was not complete.

More details will be forthcoming, I’m sure.

And, yes, for a brief moment, I considered calling this post, “Yankton Cat Gets Hammered.” Tasteless, I know, but in this business, black or gallows humor comes with the territory. I ask for your forgiveness, dear readers …

Fans Get Their 15 Seconds Of ‘Star Wars’ Fame

This is one of many fan-created scenes found in "Star Wars Uncut."

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found it rather painful to even sit through the trailer for the “Star Wars: Episode 1” in 3-D trailer. I haven’t watched that film since seeing it in the theater for good reason. The trailer running in theaters now just confirms it for me. Releasing it in 3-D then, makes it seem like that much more of a cash grab to my tastes.

However, this fan-sourced recreation of “Star Wars: Episode IV” is quite charming based on what I’ve watched so far. I’ve found that while “Star Wars” creator George Lucas has sometimes failed over the years, the fans who so love his sci-fi world often do not. They have brought a lot of wonderful things into existence (even if it is with limited production values).

That is certainly the case with “Star Wars Uncut: Director’s Cut.” I haven’t watched the whole thing yet, but it is easy to get sucked in by the genuine fan love and creativity of the project.

Instead of trying to explain the project myself, here is the description provided on Youtube:

In 2009, Casey Pugh asked thousands of Internet users to remake “Star Wars: A New Hope” into a fan film, 15 seconds at a time. Contributors were allowed to recreate scenes from Star Wars however they wanted. Within just a few months SWU grew into a wild success. The creativity that poured into the project was unimaginable.

SWU has been featured in documentaries, news features and conferences around the world for its unique appeal. In 2010 we won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Creative Achievement In Interactive Media.

Finally, the crowd-sourced project has been stitched together and put online for your streaming pleasure. The “Director’s Cut” is a feature-length film that contains hand-picked scenes from the entire collection.

Here is the official site for the project.

From one amateur light saber wielder to another, thank you “Star Wars” fans!!!

‘I Thought Of Myself As A Robin Hood …’

Les Falco is one of tne of the stars of "The End." He was a Robin Hood, or was he?

I watched a really interesting documentary last night about gangsters from London’s East End.

“The End” had a simple format, consisting of interviews with a string of old self-proclaimed (and usually) proud gangsters.

If you lived on the East End in post-World War II England, you apparently didn’t have much choice but to get involved in some level of crime. Violence was a way of life. At least according to these geezers (and I mean that term in the British slang sense of a bloke or dude).

Some of these gents have found the Lord. I’m not going to lie, the movie slows down a bit when they start talking about all that. Luckily, they don’t dwell on it much. We want to hear the war stories, right? Not about finding the light!

If you enjoy big egos with entertaining stories, similar to listening to your uncles talk about the days of yore, then it’s a good way to spend 90 minutes.

One quote early on in the film really stuck with me. It’s honestly a bloody brilliant line delivered by Les Falco (pictured above), one of the aforementioned gangsters and the father of the twins who made the movie.

“I thought of myself as a Robin Hood. Everyone else thought I was a robbin’ bastard …”

The Inland Voyage’s Top Films Of 2011

Evan Glodell blazed onto the scene in 2011 with his debut feature "Bellflower."

I am perhaps the last film lover to release a top 10 list for 2011.

Of course, that’s because I insist that the best be saved for last.

Or it could be the fact that I live in a rural hub of the Midwest, where many of the year’s best films don’t begin to roll out until late December or January.

That being said, 2011 was a banner year for film. I could have easily substituted a totally different list of films in my top 10 and been perfectly happy with the quality on display.

I just hope you got to a theater outside of Yankton or subscribe to Netflix, because only one of these films, “Drive,” played here. It’s hardly breaking news that many of the best movies never play outside the largest metropolitan areas. A point of light is that streaming services are making these smaller films more accessible than ever to people who don’t happen to live in Chicago, Los Angeles or New York.

10. Bellflower
It’s a bit strange to include this film, because, as I watched it, I was fully aware of what I felt were flaws. The main character, played by director Evan Glodell, is a bit annoying, for example. On more than one occasion, I wanted to slap him for being kind of a doofus. But I loved the creative vision behind the film and the lore behind the making of it. “Bellflower” imagines the end of a relationship in apocalyptic terms, complete with a flamethrower and a car out of a “Mad Max” movie. Every scene has an oppressive yellow haze that makes the viewer imagine it must be hot and greasy in the California town where these characters reside. I’m very excited to see what Glodell does next, as this first effort was a major, uncompromising achievement.

9. Putty Hill
One thing I’ve always loved about films is that it is a cheap way to travel. You can see things and experience cultures in the comfort of a theater or your home, even if you can’t necessarily travel as much as you’d like. “Putty Hill” takes the viewer to a place we would probably never think to visit — a working class area of Baltimore. A young man, Cody, has just died of an overdose, and Matthew Porterfield’s film explores the reactions of those who knew him in the days leading up to his wake. Sometimes the camera simply observes the characters going about their lives, drawing a tattoo, going for a swim or visiting with family. In other instances, a voice off-camera will ask a character if they knew Cody and what they thought of him. This world is fully-realized, but the film still has a dream-like quality. You suspect many of the characters try not to focus too hard on life because the lives they lead are full of a lot of pain.

8. Certified Copy
What is real and what is a copy? And if you can’t distinguish a copy from the original, is the original really any better? This film by Abbas Kiarostami starts off posing those questions about art. But as Elle (Juliette Binoche) and James (William Shimell) spend an afternoon together, we soon begin questioning the same about their relationship. Are they a couple? Or are they simply acting the part? Can we tell the difference, and does it matter? It’s hard to believe that a film that consists mostly of two people talking while driving, sitting or strolling could be so invigorating, but it is. Chances are, you’ll want to start watching the movie again right away to try to figure out what you just saw.

7. Margin Call
Is this really how the financial collapse happened? Was it because a bunch of people making lots of money had no idea what they were really doing? From what I’ve read and also heard from a friend who worked on Wall Street, that is precisely what occurred in some cases. “Margin Call” manages to keep a tight grip on its audience from beginning to end as the employees of a Wall Street firm realize that the gravy train has come to an end. Personalities begin to clash as decisions are made on what to do next. I loved the characters (particularly the conflicted Sam Rogers, played by Kevin Spacey). Considering 2011 was the Year of the Protester, this film couldn’t have been more perfectly timed to coincide with the criticisms of capitalism offered by Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs.

6. Poetry
Mija is a study in quiet struggle. In the opening moments of “Poetry,” she is informed that she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. She then goes on caring for her grandson, because her daughter lives in another city for reasons that are never clear. Soon, she learns that her grandson was involved with a group of boys in sexually assaulting a teenage girl who recently committed suicide. She is under pressure from school officials and other parents to find money to pay off the girl’s family to avoid a police investigation. Through all of this, Mija struggles to write a poem for her poetry class. She finds it nearly impossible. But when she does produce a poem, it is devastating in more ways than one. Next to “Tree of Life,” “Poetry” had the most profound impact on me in 2011.

5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Gary Oldman has been one of my favorite actors since I first saw him in movies like “Immortal Beloved” and “The Professional.” I was thrilled to once again see him with a major role in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” But where he used to play things loud and eccentric, he is quiet and calculating as the ironically-named spy George Smiley. This movie expects its audience to become engaged from the very beginning and does not tolerate attention lapses. I like that kind of challenge. It’s made all the more enjoyable by including a cast of England’s most brilliant actors.

4. Hugo/Midnight in Paris
Paris. It’s not just any ordinary city. It’s the City of Light. The City of Love. It has an air of magic. And that sense of its unnatural qualities made its way into two great films this year.
“Hugo” is director Martin Scorsese’s first foray into storytelling for a younger audience. However, I found it just as fascinating as an adult. I was taken up by the mystery at the heart of the movie, but also was elated by its celebration of film as an artistic medium. It’s a wonderful thing to watch as the character of French filmmaker Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) embraces his artistic past after years of miserable denial.
It’s not unusual to romanticize the past, and director Woody Allen explores the pitfalls of that habit in “Midnight in Paris.” Protagonist Gil (Owen Wilson) actually manages to travel into the past and meet the literary characters and artists he so admires. He is in love with Paris, and the audience can’t help but fall in love with Paris, too. The film is smart and charming. No wonder it was a big hit for Allen.

3. Drive
I’m not the first person to compare “Drive” to a type of euphoric drug for serious film lovers, but that’s exactly what it was for me. The soundtrack, style and atmosphere reminded me of my favorite Michael Mann movies with a twist. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has been on my radar since watching “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising” last year. Ryan Gosling as “The Driver” is as iconic as a character comes, helped by the scorpion jacket inspired by Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising.” The other players — Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks among them — also play things perfectly.

2. The Descendants
Alexander Payne is one of my favorite directors, and it’s not just because he is from my home state of Nebraska. He always manages to find the comedy in the saddest of moments. Or the sadness in the happiest of moments. For me, he always seems to find the right balance. “The Descendants” was thrilling from beginning to end as it followed the King family through the prolonged death of wife and mother Elizabeth, and the sale of some prized family property. During more than one moment, I was struck by the diverse reactions of the crowd. In some cases I heard laughter where I could sense some in the audience were on the verge of tears. This is life. It’s a mess, and we all react to it differently.

1. Tree Of Life
What is “The Tree of Life?” It is a song. A prayer. A meditation. It is director Terrence Malick’s vision of birth, life and death. I understand why, for some people, it does not work. It is a grand journey, and if you don’t like the guide, you won’t be interested in coming along. But for me, the film captures the grandeur of life’s small moments and demonstrates they are bigger than we might think. “The Tree of Life” resonated with me emotionally and intellectually, and it was not weakened upon second viewing.

As a bonus, here are my top 10 documentaries of 2011:

10. Cave of Forgotten Dreams

9. American: The Bill Hicks Story

8. If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

7. Tabloid

6. Buck

5. Better This World

4. Bill Cunningham New York/Page One: Inside the New York Times

3. Senna

2. The Arbor

1. Nostalgia for the Light

And, finally, these are probably major contenders for my narrative film list had I been able to see them prior to compiling a top 10: “Shame,” “The Artist,” “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” “Take Shelter” and “A Separation.”

P.S. I just can’t stop. This is a random list of other films I really enjoyed watching this past year that I think are worth your time: Melancholia, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Rampart, Beginners, Moneyball, Uncle Boonmee who Can Recall his Past Lives, The Help, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 50/50, The Skin I Live In, Win Win, Warrior, Hanna, The Trip, Contagion, I Saw The Devil, Source Code, Submarine, Cold Weather, Terri, Troll Hunter, Cedar Rapids, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, The Myth of the American Sleepover, N.E.D.S., Point Blank and Arthur Christmas.

P.P.S. I really considered putting “Love Exposure” in my top 10. It is four hours of madness. And genius. And just about any other descriptor you can dream up.

‘Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench’: A Jazzy New Wave Musical

Do you like the French New Wave? Musicals from the 1930s? Jazz music?

If any of those things appeal to you, it’s very likely that you’ll find something to enjoy in “Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench.”
I watched it last night via Netflix Instant and thought it was quite fun. It has some very choreographed numbers, but some of the music and dancing is natural enough that you believe it would be possible to be at a party and witness it. Lovely.

More Food For Thought On Gov. Daugaard’s Merit Pay Proposal

If Gov. Dennis Daugaard has accomplished anything with his merit pay proposal, it is to generate conversation about the South Dakota school system.

I think a lot of people will commend the governor for taking an interest in improving education in the state — especially after last year’s education proposals from his office, which didn’t extend beyond significantly decreasing education funds as part of across-the-board cuts in state spending. However, many people seem to be skeptical of the merit pay proposal. In the many conversations I’ve had with people, no one has come out and said that merit pay is a good idea for the education system — say no more, say no more.

It would suggest that the governor needs to educate the public on why he believes merit pay will work.

When he visited the Press & Dakotan office last Friday, I sought to get an answer as to why Gov. Daugaard (and South Dakota Secretary of Education Melody Schopp) believes merit pay is a good option for improving student achievement. Here is the exchange:

Me: I’ve read about multiple studies that show merit pay for teachers does not affect test scores. What makes you think that this plan will affect test scores? I assume by what you’ve said that’s what you want to see, is improved test scores.
Gov. Daugaard: I do. I think student achievement measured by test scores has to be moving up.
I don’t suggest that my plan is perfect or that I know with certainty that it will work. I do know that what we’ve been doing isn’t working. We’ve got to try something, and this is my best judgment about a methodology that will hopefully work. I’m open to other ideas so long as they are targeted to something that I believe truly will improve student achievement and isn’t simply more money for the same system.

Secretary Schopp: Many of the systems were put into place many, many years ago. They were different types of systems. We didn’t have the standardized, strong evaluation system. To make any determinations about merit pay systems that are currently going on across the nation — they are so brand new, so to have any empirical data to be able to say that … (here she changes her line of thought) … That’s why, with the governor’s proposal, it is something that South Dakota is doing that I’m hoping other states can go back and say, ‘Look what they tried and look at what South Dakota did,’ that they could base their system on.
Many things were tried in different types of formats that were not systemic with the strong training the governor is proposing that really sets the basis and criteria that I believe other state have never even attempted to do.

The question I asked is bound to come up again, and I don’t think I am stepping outside the bounds of being a reporter by saying Gov. Daugaard and Secretary Schopp should probably tighten up their response to it. As it stands, the governor seems to be asking his constituents to simply have faith in his leadership — leadership he doesn’t even seem to be so sure of in this case.

Based on what’s been found so far, skepticism is a legitimate response. A lot of research has been done on merit pay in education systems. Very little of it has found favorable results.

See here, here and here for recent examples.

One could argue that the details of the South Dakota system will be different under the governor’s proposal than what was studied above, but as my recent post about human motivation demonstrated, it’s still debatable whether changing the details has any effect on the success of the concept of merit pay in teaching as a whole.

By the way, another pitfall that must be overcome is misusing test scores in the evaluation system.

One of the few favorable studies I’ve found of merit pay was done on an international scale by Ludger Woessmann.

He states:

A little-used survey conducted by the OECD in 2005 makes it possible to identify the developed countries participating in PISA that appear to have some kind of performance pay plan. Linking that information to a country’s test performance, one finds that students in countries with performance pay perform at higher levels in math, science, and reading. Specifically, students in countries that permit teacher salaries to be adjusted for outstanding performance score approximately one-quarter of a standard deviation higher on the international math and reading tests, and about 15 percent higher on the science test, than students in countries without performance pay.

But then he offers this disclaimer:

I draw these conclusions cautiously, as my study is based on information on students in just 27 countries, and the available information on the extent of performance pay in a country is far from perfect. Further, the analysis is based on what researchers refer to as observational rather than experimental data, making it more difficult to make confident statements regarding causality.

It is possible that what I have observed is the opposite of what it seems: countries with high student achievement may find it easier to persuade teachers to accept pay for performance, thereby making it appear that merit pay is lifting achievement. More generally, both performance pay and higher levels of achievement could be produced by some set of factors other than all of those taken into account in the analysis. For example, performance pay could be more widely used in places where, as in Asia, cultural expectations for student performance are high, making it appear that performance pay systems are effective, when in fact both performance pay plans and student achievement are the result of underlying cultural characteristics. But even if my findings are not indisputable, I did carry out a variety of checks to see if any observable factor, such as Asian-European differences, could account for the conclusion. Thus far, I have been unable to find any convincing evidence that the findings are incorrect. Given that, let us take a closer look at what can be learned about the impact of performance pay from PISA data.

In closing, I’m going to quote extensively from a post by Esther Quintero at the Albert Shanker Institute. True, the organization is named after a late president of the American Federation of Teachers, but I wouldn’t discount what is said below based on a skepticism of unions, if that is your inclination.

The current teacher salary scale has come under increasing fire, and for a reason. Systems where people are treated more or less the same suffer from two basic problems. First, there will always be a number of “free riders.” Second, and relatedly, some people may feel their contributions aren’t sufficiently recognized. So, what are good alternatives? I am not sure; but based on decades worth of economic and psychological research, measures such as merit pay are not it.

Although individual pay for performance (or merit pay) is a widespread practice among U.S. businesses, the research on its effectiveness shows it to be of limited utility (see here, here, here, and here), mostly because it’s easy for its benefits to be swamped by unintended consequences. Indeed, psychological research indicates that a focus on financial rewards may serve to (a) reduce intrinsic motivation, (b) heighten stress to the point that it impairs performance, and (c) promote a narrow focus reducing how well people do in all dimensions except the one being measured.

In 1971, a research psychologist named Edward Deci published a paper concluding that, while verbal reinforcement and positive feedback tends to strengthen intrinsic motivation, monetary rewards tend to weaken it. In 1999, Deci and his colleagues published a meta-analysis of 128 studies (see here), again concluding that, when people do things in exchange for external rewards, their intrinsic motivation tends to diminish. That is, once a certain activity is associated with a tangible reward, such as money, people will be less inclined to participate in the task when the reward is not present. Deci concluded that extrinsic rewards make it harder for people to sustain self-motivation.

Similarly, behavioral economist Dan Ariely and colleagues have shown that the introduction of extrinsic rewards cause an individual’s “decision frame” to shift from a social to a monetary orientation (see here). In a separate study, Ariely also demonstrated that financial rewards can dilute the signaling value of pro-social behavior (see here), to the extent that the presence of extrinsic incentives make it harder to tell if someone is motivated by a desire “to do good or to do well.” Research also demonstrates that just activating the idea of money in somebody’s head can, by itself, reduce their pro-social behavior in subsequent and unrelated situations. For example, researchers Vohs, Mead and Goode (2008) showed that making money salient can later make you less likely to perform pro-social tasks, such as helping a stranger pick up a box of pencils that has been “accidentally” spilled (see here). …

Education, teaching and learning have much more to do with dedication, creativity, and commitment than bonuses, incentives, and perks. Some might still say that the labor market behavior of teachers and potential teachers can still obey the laws of market economics. Absolutely. But by changing the rules (i.e., bonuses) we are changing the game (i.e., education) and the players (i.e., teachers).

There is no doubt educators need to be paid fairly – nobody is suggesting otherwise. I am also not suggesting that some creative thinking and experimentation in teacher compensation isn’t warranted. That said, do we want our teachers to be the kind of people who would freely help pick up those pencils or the kind who would only help if you pay them extra? So the real question is, do we want our educators to be motivated primarily by market norms or by social norms? We probably can’t have it both ways – this may actually be an either/or issue.

Since Gov. Daugaard’s plan also aims to retain good teachers, I also feel compelled to share an excerpt from a blog by Eleanor Fulbeck that can also be found at the Albert Shanker Institute site. She summarizes the research done on the link between retention and bonuses. The results are mixed.

Thus, the available body of evaluation research on alternative teacher compensation programs does not consistently suggest financial incentives improve teacher retention. In some cases incentives appear to be associated with small increases in retention; in other cases, incentives appear to be associated with decreased retention.

The majority of evaluations, however, either found financial incentives had no effect on teacher retention or did not include an examination of retention at all. Accordingly, there is little reason to assume the availability of financial incentives will result in improved teacher retention. If anything, the research to date suggests that other considerations, such as working conditions and leadership, are more important factors in teachers’ decisions to stay, move, or leave the profession entirely.

Is that enough food for thought for one day? I know I’m exhausted from thinking about all of this!