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Performance Pay a Challenge in Academia

July 30, 2010

Pay-for-performance programs in academia appear to be gaining ground as cash-strapped state legislatures demand accountability for every dollar.

Yet the success or failure of such programs depends on the thought and care put into them. “[Institutions] need to define what they mean by performance, and they need to align performance expectations with the institution’s vision or mission,” says David Insler, senior vice president and regional leader for Sibson Consulting. Sibson, a division of Segal Co., has worked with more than 100 four-year institutions to help establish performance and pay programs.

Program success also depends on who’s doing the thinking.

Insler adds that most pay-for-performance programs in higher education apply mainly to administration, not faculty.

“The level of participation is critical in addressing the challenges,” he says. “If the chancellor or president of the university and the chief financial officer get together in a room and decide how things are going to work, it doesn’t work. You must involve department heads and midlevel managers for it to work.”

In some cases, a top-down process, complete with review forms, has already been put in place before Sibson or another consulting firm is called in, and, just as Insler observed, it doesn’t work. “More times than not, it’s about fixing the forms,” Insler says.

While the model is gaining acceptance among four-year institutions, applying pay for performance has proved to be a bit dicey in K-12 classrooms. When teachers’ paychecks were tied to students’ performance on standardized tests, some educators cheated to improve children’s test scores and their own salaries.

“In higher education, the challenges are very different from K-12,” Insler says.

Some pay-for-performance programs have targeted faculty at the college level, according to John Curtis, director of research and policy for the American Association of University Professors, an advocacy group for higher education.

“Normally, these programs are imposed top-down from the state legislature to the top university management without involvement of the faculty,” Curtis says. “The impetus ... is to show that something’s being done and people are being held accountable.”

When faculty aren’t involved in defining performance criteria, Curtis says metrics often focus on such things as annual graduation rates, which are expected to continuously climb and which don’t necessarily measure educational achievement.

“This is problematic,” Curtis says. “Not all students come to college to get a degree. There is also the idea that anything should increase continuously. At some level, things should be good enough.”

Curtis acknowledges that educational performance can be meaningfully measured. “The best kinds of measures in education are formative,” he says. Instead of tests, students and teachers discuss what’s happening in the classroom. “Use the information to help improve the teaching process, but do it interactively. Don’t focus solely on some kind of measurable outcome,” he says.

Insler agrees that performance measures must be relevant. “You must be careful that what you’re measuring is an actual indicator of the desired outcome,” he says.

Intelligently defining performance is tough, whether in business or academia. “Boiling the idea of academic accomplishment down to one page loses track of what you’re really trying to accomplish,” Curtis says.

Workforce Management, June 2010, p. 4 -- Subscribe Now!