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Performance Pay: What Should It Look Like? (Part 3)

By Anthony Cody — January 11, 2010 3 min read

Last week week I posted Part 1 and Part 2 in a series of responses to a list of education policy challenges posted by my friend Nancy Flanagan. Nancy publishes an excellent blog (Teacher in a Strange Land) Please join me in thinking about and discussing our response, as teachers, to the issues she raises:

Here is the next Obama/Duncan policy she cites, followed by my thoughts:

Merit pay: Will performance pay change teacher effectiveness? If not, what will?

First of all, we should agree that it should be possible to come up with new ways of paying teachers that will enhance the work we do, and encourage things that are associated with better student learning. However, as the many aborted teacher pay experiments attest, there are many ways to do this wrong, and in an era of scarce resources, we need to take the time to get this right.

Before we try to reward effectiveness, we need to agree on how to define and measure it. One of the reasons so many of us resist many proposals for performance pay is that they often equate effectiveness with the ability to raise test scores. When this objection is raised, we inevitably hear “Oh yes, we know these measurements are inadequate, but they are what we have, and so we have to use them until something better comes along.” I am sorry, but that is not good enough for our students. By attaching high stakes to test scores we systematically devalue everything else. I have seen the results firsthand in Oakland, where many elementary schools do not even teach science. In the middle schools, when math and science are taught together over two periods, many times the science is taught one hour a week, and the math nine hours a week. Because that is what counts on the test.

If we want performance pay to result in better outcomes for students, we need to reach agreement on what those outcomes should be. Then we should figure out ways to encourage teachers to engage in the processes that yield those outcomes.

David Cohen’s comment on my last post gives us a snapshot of what these practices should look like:

At my school, when we're having productive conversations about student achievement, we're talking about many skills that can't be measured by standardized tests: student writing, students' work habits and habits of mind, discussion skills, research skills, and creativity all come to mind. Now someone will come along and say "you can't measure creativity" - and they may be right, and I don't try to. But when I give my students options to show their reading skills in creative ways, I can evaluate the result using the same old state standards as my benchmark.
When an entire class or grade level has the chance to do a similar project, then the teachers are using good teaching practices - research-based practices that improve motivation and engagement - and then gathering useful information about student learning which can then be used to inform instruction and further improve student achievement. Where we can improve is in gathering this information in a more formal and systematic way, with some procedures or protocols built in as controls - someone outside, a neutral observer with a critical eye.

This is the sort of practice that should be rewarded. And we must make sure that any system we design rewards collaboration and cooperation, because this is what teachers value most, and this is what drives improvements in practice and allows them to be shared. Teachers who lead these processes should receive extra compensation. Teachers should also receive additional compensation for mentoring novices, for conducting teacher action research to improve their practice, and for leading professional development.

In the TeacherSolutions report on pay for performance from a few years back, we wrote about the value of teachers taking on hybrid roles, where they teach part time and use part of their time for leadership activities.

Lastly, author Daniel Pink has recently reminded us what teachers have known intuitively all along, since we are the original experts on motivation. Carrots and sticks are poor substitutes for intrinsic motivation. He says in this interview with Claus von Zastrow;

There is 40 years of science that says that for complex, conceptual, creative tasks--the sort of things that most white-collar workers are doing now that the more simple routine work can be offshore or automated--carrot and stick motivators don't work. Or I should say they rarely work, and they often do harm.

Pink suggests:

The way that money is most effective as a motivator is to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they are not focused on money, but they are focused on doing their job well. My experience has been that 85% of teachers out there just want teach and do right by kids. If you raise their base salaries and give them some autonomy, they'll do that. If you also give either building principals or superintendents the ability to get rid of--and I am just estimating here--the 10% or 15% of teachers, like the 10% or 15% of any profession, who are duds, I think that is a simpler solution. It is not perfect, but it has far less collateral damage than tying [pay] to standardized test scores or doing these elaborate performance measurements.

Pay for performance systems that have been successful, like the Alternative Teacher Professional Pay System in Minneapolis, were developed through a joint planning process that involved teacher leaders. It has expanded teacher leadership and avoided many of the pitfalls described above. If you are going to get teachers motivated to work harder, to work smarter, and to work together, you had better make sure they are front and center when the plan is designed.

What do you think about performance pay for teachers? What do you think should be rewarded?

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.

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