Performance pay proposal perplexing

Sometimes new things come to Nevada quickly. Other times, they arrive on the national scene, are rejected here, become stale elsewhere, and then are embraced in Nevada. After all, this is the state where Elvis flopped when he was hot, then became a big Las Vegas act 10 years after.

The Nevada Legislature is now considering an education change that was very chic during the Reagan administration — performance incentives for teachers. President Ronald Reagan’s education secretary, Ted Bell, had been pushing the notion since he was Utah superintendent of schools.

In one 1964 call for incentive pay, Bell had said, “There should be enough college graduates in teacher education to permit local superintendents to be selective in hiring teachers.”

Of course, if that was true, there would be no need for incentives, but never mind.

In the 1980s, Bell took the idea into the Reagan cabinet and some states embraced it. He promised that if the states would offer career incentives and peer review of teachers, the federal Education Department would pay for experiments in each state to try out performance pay.

It was portrayed as a way of making government operate like a business. Yet the business community was subdued in its attitude toward the notion, and those who made the claim tended never to have ever been business people themselves. A few states instituted performance pay for teachers, but most of them later discontinued it.

The years and the Bush and Clinton administrations passed and still the idea never quite caught on but never quite died, either. At the moment, Texas is considering performance pay for teachers. And so is Britain, where one publication asked, “Where’s the evidence on performance-­related pay for teachers?”

During the Clinton administration, “PBS NewsHour” contributor and New York Times columnist Richard Rothstein started phoning corporations to find out how they used performance incentives. What he found out was that they didn’t.

He called major firms like Cisco and Wal-Mart. He called the Harvard Business School and other business training institutions for leads. Not only did he not find companies that used performance pay, he also found that they recommended against it. Even John Chubb, the CEO of Edison Schools Inc. (the nation’s leading for-­profit school management company), said using test scores to influence pay is a mistake.

Rothstein did find one way that performance pay was used in business, for sales commissions. “(S)tockbrokers and sales clerks are paid on commission,” he wrote. But he wrote further that the “high pressure tactics this system (of sales commissions) can engender should be intolerable where children are concerned.”

Early in President Barack Obama’s administration, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called teacher performance pay his department’s “highest priority.” The administration’s “Race to the Top” fund was set up with more than $4 billion to coax state governments into embracing it.

In Nevada this year, there’s a bill, Assembly Bill 378, that includes provisions for performance pay. The measure is kind of a mess, mixing different education changes with the performance pay proposal. It was approved by the Assembly, but when it got to the Senate, it was reportedly gutted and became a vehicle for subsidies for private schools, which essentially circumvents legislative deadline rules that prohibit introducing new legislation late in the session.

But the Assembly would have to agree to the change in order for the bill to pass, and so there is every chance that its original language on performance pay will be restored. (Actually, on the date I write, legislative records do not show the bill has yet been amended, at all.)

The Nevada bill is sponsored by one of the most far right members of the Legislature — Victoria Dooling. Why would Dooling, of all people, sponsor a proposal disdained by business people but embraced by President Obama?

Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.