Teacher Incentives and Australia-Bound Felons

Can 18th century British boat captains teach us anything about the effectiveness of teacher incentives?

Early this morning, NPR featured an economist talking about English maritime history an economist talking about English maritime history.  As many know, at one point Australia served as  a prison colony for Great Britain.  The British would send their criminals on a lovely sea voyage, eventually dumping their troublemakers on what was seen as the other side of the world.
The trouble was, by the time the trip from England to Australia was completed, nearly one third of the prisoners on the ship were dead, lost mid-voyage because of lack of care or concern from the boat captain and his crew.  You see, those manning the British crafts were paid by the journey.  Complete the trip to the Land Down Under and back, and collect your paycheck.
So at the end of the 18th century (1793, I believe) some British leaders took great issue with the fatality rates on these prison ships.  How could Great Britain move these criminals from the British Isles to Australia successfully, where they could serve out their sentences as intended?
Ultimately, the British came up with an intriguing idea.  Instead of paying ship captains by the trip, they changed their contracts and paid them based on the number of prisoners that were ultimately delivered to Australia.  By shifting pay determination from process (the trip) to outcomes (the number of living bodies delivered), a funny thing happened.  Nearly 99 percent of those destined for Australia made it there alive, up from the previous 65 percent survival rate.  Ship captains were paid well, and they were recognized for successfully completing the job at hand.
Perhaps I am a little punchy this AM, or perhaps I am just trying to be a little provocative, but what if we took the same approach to teaching?  What if, instead of being paid for standing in front of a classroom for an academic year, teachers were paid based on the number of students who score proficient or better on assessment measures?  Would we see a change in outcomes?
When we talk teacher incentives, isn’t the 18th century nautical analogy apropos?  Ultimately, our teachers are the captains of their classrooms, in charge of charting the course and making sure all those on board make it to the final destination.  Today, most of those teachers are rewarded for simply manning the ship, surviving the trip from September through June.  I’ll give you that we shouldn’t look at our students as 18th century criminals, but the survival of today’s students depends on their ability to demonstrate proficiency on academic measures.  So why not expect that student performance would increase if teacher pay is tied to that ultimate outcome?
The NPR economist was singing the praises of the British approach, acknowledging that the shift in pay structure all but eliminated the “failure” rate on these ships, with virtually all passengers surviving the trip.  What would these economists say about applying these lessons to the 21st century classroom?

5 thoughts on “Teacher Incentives and Australia-Bound Felons

  1. I too heard this broadcast, and though I am a teacher, I applied the analogy to tax breaks and bailouts for business, without any accountability. The application of the analogy to education is quite interesting, and while I see at least some potential merit to your argument, I believe you’ve failed to consider factors over which the “captain” of the classroom has little or no control. Is it not reasonable to assume that the captains of the penal ships depended heavily on those individuals who were responsible for assuring that ships were seaworthy and capable of making such a long voyage prior to the ship leaving port? Surely the captain of the ship relied upon an able crew to keep the ship safely afloat at sea. While I would agree that the captain of a classroom, the teacher, is the one primarily responsible for delivering a quality education to his or her students, navigating them successfully to graduation, one must not ignore the importance of essential sources of support for education that lay in the hands of lawmakers who are willing to adequately fund education, and parents who are willing to accept their share of responsibility for making certain that their children are both prepared for the voyage and properly nurtured along the way. To suggest that a teacher’s paycheck ought to be tied to student achievement on assessment measures while ignoring the importance of adequate funding and cooperation between home and school, both so essential to assuring student success, is not a way to improve our nation’s schools. I suspect the captains of the British penal ships would have failed miserably under their revised compensation contracts had they been forced to make the journey to Australia without adequate support while in port and at sea, and even the very best captains would likely have opted for a different career.Perhaps such a singular view of teachers as being the only ones responsible for student achievement explains why so many teachers who begin their careers in the classroom with such enthusiasm tend to leave the profession so quickly. Furthermore, if money were a motivating factor in deciding to become a teacher in the first place, I’m afraid we’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to choose teaching as a career in the first place.

  2. I don’t see the teachers union allowing this to happen. It would probably provided better results, but it could increase the gap between well performing and under performing schools. I use those terms loosely, as I don’t see many of the former.If good teachers were able to make significantly more money then perhaps this concept would work.Being a recent college graduate the people I knew who went on became teachers did so because they were unable to earn good enough grades in other departments to make it, so they basically failed into teaching. Obviously this is not all of the people I knew, but a better portion than what our education system needs. This is not to say we don’t have great people going and getting teachers degrees.The other issue is no matter how good or how hard a teacher works, if the students are not being challenged at home – then we will continue to see only 60% of our high school seniors graduating.Our own real hope of significant change is to challenge the parents into becoming involved and having it mean something to them. Until educational excellence is centered around the home, then no matter how much money the government spends or how they spends it results will remain the same. The love of learning has been all but lost.

  3. The difference is how well students perform on a test is subject to far more factors than a simple live/die on an ocean voyage. The result of your idea would be an even greater emphasis on the tests (and the exclusion of everything not on tests), turning school even more into test prep. And it would mean even fewer would be willing to teach low-income and minorities who tend not to do well on tests.

  4. Unfortunately, research is now proving that this kind of incentivising works for SOME professions, but not others. I don’t think it’s safe to assume that if teachers would only care about the success of their students more, the success rates would rise. Have you seen Daniel Pink’s TED talk on the science of motivation? It’s wonderful! I recommend it highly!

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