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Why We Hate Talking About Performance

The reaction to my first few posts has confirmed my impression that performance is a difficult issue to talk about in education.

Consider this comment from an anonymous reader on Anthony Cody's thoughtful analysis of my post on economic incentives:

So much wrong here on the part of Mr. Baeder - "it is intuitive to people in most industries that one's pay should be commensurate with one's contribution to the organization" assumes education is an industry (it is not); that most people find the connection between work and pay "intuitive" (not true - pay is rarely mentioned, even in industry, as most important to workers - it is managers who"intuit" this connection, incorrectly); and it assumes that pay is tied to contribution to the organization (more manager-speak; teachers contribute to the education of children, not the organization).

This reflects a sentiment I often encounter from practicing educators: education should not be considered an "industry;" therefore, any discussion of money is insulting and off-base. Why are we so touchy about this issue?

Clearly, it's partially because most educators care very much about their students, and are committed to doing their best work for reasons unrelated to pay. Never would you hear an educator—including me—say "I'll work 10% harder for 10% more money." We're right to be offended when we're accused of holding back. But there's more behind this sensitivity to discussions of performance and compensation.

This comment from Dee_Alpert hits the nail on the head:

Americans, for the most part, still think of teaching as a vocation, akin to the priesthood, rather than as a profession. There's a problem because the public education system has become extraordinarily expensive and both individuals and corporations are looking at the investment they make in this system, via their taxes, and judge teaching as a profession. There's quite a difference in what one expects ... and how one wants to measure the results.

We hate talking about performance because most of us entered education as a vocation, not a profession.

Consider what would happen if parish priests were suddenly held accountable for souls saved, shut-ins visited, and lives changed. Would this not create a profound sense of confusion and dismay in the priesthood?

Consider what would happen if poets were required to administer five-point surveys to their readers, and to report the percentage who enjoyed their poems: "Strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree."

Regardless of whether educators are actually treated like professionals, we are now being judged as professionals. The ship has sailed, and being an educator—at least in public schools—is now a profession (though we have a long way to go in some respects). Educators are not just people who work (vocationally) for kids; we're also employees in educational organization, namely schools and districts. We work for school districts on behalf of kids, and it's this employee role that often places educators in the crosshairs of public criticism.

Just so you don't misunderstand my perspective on this, let me be clear that a lot of the ways teachers and other educators are being judged by narrow measures of learning is sub-professional. We must demand better, and must push back against demeaning attempts to improve performance at the expense of professionalism. On the other hand, we can use the push for performance as a push for greater professionalism.

As Dee says, the public tolerance for using tax dollars to fund someone's vocation is in sharp decline. My district has a budget of half a billion dollars a year. Clearly, we must be able to show that we are achieving something worthwhile with this money. Instead of focusing solely on making sure test scores go up, we need to show evidence of professional practice, and that includes talking about performance without having a panic attack. If my salary is to be a defensible use of tax dollars, I can't be afraid to discuss the quality of my work.

But we also need to construe performance more broadly; it's not just test scores. Watch for more on this soon.

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