Education Opinion

Performance Pay: What do Teachers Say?

By Anthony Cody — July 08, 2008 2 min read
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This week Barack Obama repeated his call for teachers to be paid for performance. He stated “Under my plan, districts will be able to design programs that give educators who serve as mentors to new teachers the salary increase they deserve. They’ll be able to reward those who teach in under-served areas or take on added responsibilities. And if teachers learn new skills to serve students better, or if they consistently excel in the classroom, that work can be valued and rewarded as well.”

I was involved in discussions and research on this issue last year, when I participated in the TeacherSolutions project, Performance-Pay for Teachers; Designing a System that Students Deserve. The report we wrote was the first to put forth the views of leading teachers from around the country. I think there is room for discussion here, and teachers should engage in an active dialogue about what these systems should look like. This is not a new idea, however, and we can learn a lot from mistakes that have been made in recent years.

I read an insightful comment in an online forum last week, from a colleague in Oakland, who works at one of our middle schools. She writes:

Here’s the big thing I think should be linked to performance pay. I absolutely believe that more experienced/more successful teachers who choose to teach in under-performing schools should be paid more. I am increasingly finding myself in a hopeless place in Oakland where I’m afraid that my conclusion is basically that schools here can’t improve significantly until the teaching force is more experienced; until the district can attract skilled teachers and retain the new ones who are lured here. I’ve been working on hiring at my school this spring. I’ve listed job postings all over the country, on alumni sites all over the country, I’ve done job fair after job fair, I’ve contacted teaching credential programs…and in the end, we had a pathetically tiny batch of teachers apply for positions. Most had never taught; a few had 1-2 years experience. All were women; none were African American (which is the majority of our student population). My school can advertise itself well; it has curb appeal—small class sizes, arts integration coach, instructional coaching (that’s me), individualized summer PD opportunities, a lot of ways for teachers to make extra money, a beautiful garden, safe neighborhood, etc. It looks good on paper. And even so, we couldn’t get any experienced teachers interested…When I talk to friends in other schools, they are seeing the same thing. We all end up with TFA teachers who leave after 2 years, or now in Oakland we have the Oakland Teaching Fellow or Oakland Teacher Corp, very similar to TFA and with just as high of a turn-over rate.
Since I’ve started coaching, I’ve been reminded of how little we know in the first few years of teaching. It’s humbling. And frightening. While it makes me think a lot about what teacher preparation programs need to look like, I also need to put that aside, roll up my sleeves and get into the teaching/coaching of our new teachers. I enjoy it; many are eager and spongy. But it’s really hard when they leave after a year or two, for grad school, another district, another position in education. And so over and over and over our kids get teachers who don’t really know what they’re doing.
We need experienced teachers; OUSD needs to be able to pay experienced and effective teachers (and I know we need to define what effective means) a LOT to come here, and a LOT to stay.

I agree with this perspective. Many of our experienced teachers play a critical role in our schools, offering essential guidance to novice teachers. Even the best-prepared novices struggle to respond to the challenges they face their first few years. And when there are too few with experience at a school, the burden becomes overwhelming, and the support network gets stretched past the breaking point. Then the novices are left to sink or swim, with little guidance. Our schools need defined roles for mentors, with solid compensation to support this work. Going beyond mentoring, we need to expand the roles that teacher leaders play, in collaborative planning, curriculum, assessment and instruction, providing more of a career ladder for our profession.

Teachers need to be full partners in the process of designing these systems. The objective should be to motivate and reward initiative and commitment to the profession, so we have to be sure the rewards activate and inspire, rather than divide and demoralize. The biggest mistake education reformers have made in the past decade was in viewing teachers (and our unions) as obstacles to be overcome, or even eliminated. Teacher leadership can transform our schools, but we must be given a voice for it to emerge.

So what do you think? Is there a place for alternatives to the traditional pay scale? Or should educators take a stand against such proposals?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.