From a business perspective, the Luna Laws don’t pass muster for two important reasons: they are based on an outdated and discredited management philosophy and were formulated without any data supporting the purported problem or the proposed solutions.
In an article in Pacific Standard magazine, Greg Anrig notes how today’s education “reformers” embrace Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management,” a top-down, carrot-and-stick approach to organizations whose track record is dubious and whose application to schools is wholly inappropriate.
Taylor’s philosophy stemmed from a fundamental distrust of workers, who needed to have their roles and tasks defined precisely, their performance and efficiency measured regularly, and their pay tied to individual productivity. Sound familiar? This is exactly how Tom Luna and lawmakers have treated Idaho’s teaching force, who are now leaving the state and the profession in record numbers (Nearly 1900 departed last year, as compared to 700 the year before the Luna Laws passed).
Those pushing “Students Come First” don’t trust teachers or administrators, and thus didn’t include them in conversations intended to remake education. That’s akin to building a new skyscraper without consulting engineers or architects. Like Taylor, they think that the only way they can coax better performance out of educators is to shame and threaten them, impose competitive pressures, take away their voices, and link their pay to student test scores. They conclude that dangling a few extra dollars in front of teachers will make them work harder or boost student achievement.
Study after study, however, shows this approach doesn’t work. “Merit pay” data, including two comprehensive studies from Vanderbilt University and the National Academies (including National Academy of Sciences and National Council of Engineering) demonstrate that the student performance effects of “incentive” programs are effectively zero.
The net effect here has been demoralized teachers and widespread flight from a system that undervalues its workforce. Real reform might have been accomplished and embraced had state leaders looked to Deming’s “total quality management” philosophy, which emphasizes the collaborative sharing of ideas and data between workers and management and the use of metrics as diagnostic, rather than evaluative or punitive tools.
Deming is often credited with the phrase, “In God we trust. All others must bring data.” This is where Superintendent Luna comes up empty. We have no clear identification of the perceived problem—just a vague assertion that things in schools must get better. Let’s assume we can agree that Idaho isn’t sending enough kids on to post-secondary education (a very real challenge in Idaho). Where’s the evidence showing that giving students laptops will increase college-going rates? What data shows correlation between diminished collective bargaining rights for teachers and college graduation rates? Who says that students taught in a merit pay system will be more likely to further their education after high school? What data show that high school graduates lack familiarity or aptitude with technology?
The answer is that there aren’t any such data. The entire scheme rests on rhetoric and overblown promises rather than rigorous analysis of what works in schools.
Thus, there is no real business case for this ill-conceived scheme. We should reject the Luna Laws, regroup, and begin anew a discussion of true reform. And this time let’s bring everyone to the table—educators, parents, businesspeople, school boards, community leaders—and build consensus around evidence-based solutions to clearly defined problems.
Brian Cronin is an outgoing state legislator; a communications consultant for the Vote No on Propositions 1, 2, 3 campaign; Senior Vice President of Strategies 360; and parent to two fourth-graders. He has founded and operated four small businesses and has consulted for Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, and non-profits.