Trust the Evidence, Not Your Instincts

Consider this scenario. You have a serious illness. Your doctor prescribes an intrusive, painful, and expensive treatment— and you have to pay for it. What she doesn’t tell you—because she has not consulted the research – is that most studies show the treatment is ineffective and fraught with negative side-effects. You go through the procedure, suffer severe pain, and spend a lot of money. Unfortunately, as with most patients, the procedure proves ineffective. You later uncover the research your doctor failed to consult. When you ask why she didn’t use this evidence, she answers, “Who pays attention to studies? I have years of clinical experience. Besides, the protocol seemed like it ought to work.”

Does that sound like malpractice? It does to us. Fortunately, pressures to practice evidence-based medicine are reducing preventable errors. Not so in most of our workplaces, where failure to consider sound evidence repeatedly inflicts unnecessary damage on employee well-being and organizational performance. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

No workplace practice is as important—and apparently vexing—as pay. Many people believe that pay for-performance will work in virtually any organization, so it is implemented again and again to solve performance problems -- even in settings where evidence shows it is ineffective. Consider the recent decision to end New York City’s teacher bonus program after wasting three years and 56 million dollars. As this newspaper reported in July, a Rand Corporation study found this effort to link incentive pay to student performance “had no effect on students’ test scores, on grades on the city’s controversial A to F school report cards, or on the way teachers did their jobs.” This bad news could have been predicted before squandering all that time and money.The failure of such programs to boost student performance has been documented for decades. A careful review of pay for performance in schools in the 1980s showed these programs rarely lasted more than five years and consistently failed to improve student performance. The 300 page Rand report emphasizes that (although exceptions exist) evidence against the efficacy of teacher incentive pay in U.S. schools continues to grow stronger and is especially evident in the most rigorous studies.

This practice doesn’t just waste money. As Chicago economist Steve Levitt and others show, strong incentive programs can entice – or scare -- teachers and administrators to “cheat” on the tests, either by providing students with questions and answers in advance or changing student’s answer sheets to increase apparent performance. Recent well-publicized cheating scandals in Atlanta, Baltimore, Washington D.C., and elsewhere could have been foreseen by anyone who read and heeded this research. Building a culture of cheating in schools corrupts both students and teachers for no good purpose.

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