What If Administrator Pay Were Tied to Student Learning Outcomes

The recent negotiation in Chicago (“Performance Pay for College Faculty“) of a tie between student performance and college instructor pay brought this accolade from an administrator:  it gets faculty “to take a financial stake in student success.”

It got me wondering why we don’t hear more about directly tying administrator pay to student success.  If we did, I’ll bet the students would have a lot more success.  At least, that’s what the data released to the public (and Board of Trustees) would show.  There’d be far less of a crisis in higher education.

Thought experiment. What would  happen if we were to tie administrator pay to student success — much the way corporate CEOs have their pay packages designed — especially administrators of large multi-campus systems.

Prediction 1.  The immediate response to the very proposal would be “oh, no, you can’t do that because we do not have the same kind of authority to hire and fire and reward and punish that a corporate CEO has.”  But think about this…

  1. Private sector management has a lot less flexibility than those looking in from the outside think.  Almost all of the organizational impediments to simple, rational management are endemic to all organizations.
  2. Leadership is not primarily about picking the members of your team. It’s about what you manage to get the team you have to accomplish.
  3. Educational administrators do not start the job ignorant of how these educational institutions work. It is tremendously disingenuous to say “if only I had a different set of tools.”  People who do not think they can manage with the tools available and within the culture as it exists should not take these jobs in the first place.
  4. This, it turns out, is what some people mean when they say that schools should be run like a business. The first impulse of unsuccessful leaders is to blame the led. The second one is to engage in organizational sector envy: “if I had the tools they have over in X industry….”  What this ignores is the obvious evidence that others DO succeed in your industry with your tools.  And plenty of leaders “over there” fail too.  It is not the tools’ fault.

Prediction 2.  Learning would be redefined in terms of things produced by inputs administrators had more control over.  And resources would flow in that direction too.

Prediction 3. Administrators would get panicky when they looked at the rubrics in the assessment plans they exhort faculty to participate in and that are included in reports they have signed off on for accreditation agencies.  They’d suddenly start hearing the critics who raise questions about methodologies.  They would start to demand that smart ideas should drive the process and that computer systems should accommodate good ideas rather than being a reason for implementing bad ones.

Prediction 4. In some cases it would motivate individuals to start really thinking “will this promote real learning for students” each time they make a decision.  And they’ll look carefully at all that assessment data they’ve had the faculty produce and mutter, “damned if I know.”

Prediction 5. Someone will argue that the question is moot because administrators are already held responsible for institutional learning outcomes.   Someone else will say “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Better Teaching Through a Financial Stake in the Outcome

In an Inside Higher Ed article this week (“Performance Pay for College Faculty“) K Basu and P Fain describe how the new contract signed between City Colleges of Chicago and a union representing 459 adult education instructors links pay raises to student outcomes.

Administrators lauded the move in part because it gets faculty “to take a financial stake in student success.” The details of the plan are not clear from the article, but the basic framework is to use student testing to determine annual bonus pay for groups of instructors working in various areas. That is, in this particular plan it does not sound like the incentive pay is at the level of individual instructors.

Still, should the rest of higher education be paying attention? Adult education at CCC is, after all, a markedly different beast than full time liberal arts institutions or 4 year state schools or research universities. One reason we should because it’s precisely the tendency to elide institutional differences that is one of the hallmarks of the style of thought endemic among some higher education “reformers.” Those who think it’s a good idea for adult education institutions are likely to champion it elsewhere.

But most germane for the subject of this blog is the question of what data would inform such pay for performance decisions when they are proposed for other parts of American higher education. Likely it will be something that grows out of what we now know as learning assessment. I ask the reader: given what you have seen of assessment of learning outcomes in your college, how do you feel about having decisions about your pay check based upon it?

But, your opinion aside, there are several fundamental questions here. One is whether you become a more effective teacher by having a financial stake in the outcome. The industry where this incentive logic has been most extensively deployed is probably the financial services industry, especially investment banking.  How has that worked for society?  It would be easy to cook up scary stories of how this could distort the education process, but that’s not even necessary to debunk the idea.  The amounts at play in the teacher pay realm are so small that one can barely imagine even a nudge effect on how people approach their work.

But what about the data?  Consider the prospect of assessment as we know it as input to ANY decision process, let alone personnel decisions.  Anyone who has spent any time at all looking at how assessment is implemented knows that the error bars on any datum emerging from it dwarf the underlying measurement. The conceptual framework is thrown together on the basis of dubious theoretical model of teaching and learning and forced collaboration between instructors and assessment professionals.  The process sacrifices methodological rigor in the name of pragmatism, a culture of presentation (vis a vis accreditation agencies), and the tail of design limitations of software systems that wags the dog of pedagogy and common sense.  At every step of the process information is lost and distorted. But it seems that the more Byzantine that process is, the more its champions think they have scientific fact as product.

It could well be that the arrangement agreed to in Chicago will lead to instructors talking to one another about teaching, coordinating their classroom practices, and all sorts of other things that might improve the achievements of their students.  But it will likely be a rather indirect effect via the social organization of teachers (if I understood the article, the good thing about the Chicago plan is that it rewards entire categories of instructors for the aggregate improvement).  To sell it at the level of individual incentive is silly and misleading.  And, if we think more broadly about higher education, the notion that you can take the kinds of discrimination you get from extremely fuzzy data and multiply it by tiny amounts of money to produce positive change at the level of the individual instructor is probably best called bad management 101.