February 11, 2010

Additional thoughts on performance pay politics

An addendum to my entry earlier this morning: I think that there is a politically-robust rationale for performance-pay policies, but it's not at the level of incentives usually used as the justification. The more plausible rationale for performance-pay policies is at the level of public-sector accountability: most people with jobs do not expect identical salaries or salaries based on a formula, and small variations based on something other than seniority and educational credentials might boost the facial validity of public-sector HR practices.

Note that this is not an argument that business practices are always incentives based (or should be: witness AIG as a disaster stemming from short-term incentives) or even widely varying. In some cases--large law firms, for example--entry-level professionals receive step pay increases in their first few years akin to teachers' step increases. But if I were to ask the head of the Florida Council of 100, Susan Story, whether she'd stop advocating performance pay even if the research consensus in a few years were solidly against its doing anything for student achievement, my guess is that she'd still push for some form of performance pay.

The discourse around this is somewhat similar to other comparisons people make between their lives and public policy: when policies look like you're pushing the cart and someone else paid by public funds isn't, you're less likely to maintain support for it. A friend of mine visited a newspaper columnist some years ago to complain about an article the columnist had written regarding AFDC (the federal welfare program before 1996). Don't you understand the factual errors with all of the myths about welfare? my friend asked. Sure, said the columnist, but you don't understand why public attitudes have changed: as the majority of mothers now have to find their own child-care arrangements while they're working, they're going to be far less sympathetic towards women who aren't willing to work or perceived as not willing to work.

I don't agree with the columnist's thumbnail history of public attitudes towards federal welfare policies or on assumptions that women on welfare have not historically wanted to work. But there is a significant grain of truth there that when the majority of mothers work when their children are young, and they have to find and pay for child care and wrestle with the stress involved in that, those mothers are not going to want to see that they're pushing the cart and others aren't. For similar reasons, those who oppose any performance pay have an uphill road telling people who work in environments with non-step-like pay arrangements that somehow public schools should be arranged differently.

Listen to this article
Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on February 11, 2010 8:57 AM |