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?