Thursday, August 13, 2009

Incentives, schools, and markets

25 percent of new restaurants fail within a year, and 60 percent within three years. That 60 percent failure rate is "on par with the cross-industry average for new businesses, according to statistics from the Small Business Administration and the Bureau of Labor Statistics." Those figures come from formal research summarized by Business Week here.

When people talk lightly of adding market-like incentives to education, it's worth remembering how many entrepreneurs try things that don't succeed. For example, they plan to build a better mousetrap, but it turns out not to work very well. Or it works, but at too high a price. Or it works at a good price, but when stores order it, they receive their shipments late or incomplete, or not at all, until they finally stop ordering at all. Or it works, and it ships on time, but when the credit market freezes up and the company loses its line of credit, the business goes under.

Educators, being human, can operate on a similar basis. Offered incentives to improve, they can choose a good strategy or a bad one, and they can apply their strategies well or poorly. They can focus effectively, or try a dozen scattershot approaches that bewilder students and end up with falling scores rather than growth. They can also just operate as though they didn't hear the promise or the threat, continuing what they've always done. General Motors rode tradition right into bankruptcy, and Hometown High has the exact same option.

Bluntly, I'm not willing to make incentives our main strategy for promoting better instruction. To me, that's waiting around to see who succeeds and who fails, and planning to accept many failures. Having read about how our global competitors deliver higher levels of learning, it's clear to me that direct work on teaching quality is the most important way to get much higher levels of success.

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Updates and data on Kentucky education!