Education Opinion

Rothstein Interview Part 4: How About Performance Pay?

By Anthony Cody — May 21, 2009 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Last week I posted Part 1 and Part 2 of a four-part interview with author Richard Rothstein. Monday I posted Part 3, and today I post the fourth and final segment, focused on the trouble with performance pay and some fresh ideas for building accountability for our schools.

6. There is much discussion of providing financial incentives for teachers who improve student achievement. Is this a wise strategy?

We should be cautious about this strategy because we do not yet (and may never) know how to measure accurately an individual teacher’s contribution. Teachers know that in some years they get “good” classes, and in others more difficult ones, even with similar student demographic characteristics. Variation in the cognitive ability of students in different classes in the same grade and in the same school is also often deliberate. Good principals assign students to classes by matching students’ and teachers’ strengths and weaknesses. Tracking, where students are assigned to classes based on their prior performance, continues to characterize many American schools. Pay-for-performance schemes require comparing the performance of teachers facing similar challenges. Because teachers in the same grade and in the same school rarely face similar challenges, pay-for-performance schemes are unlikely to distinguish superior teachers with sufficient accuracy. These schemes may simply reward teachers who, from luck of the draw or from pupil assignment policy, happen to get classes for a year or more in which posting gains is easier.

Pay-for-performance proposals typically want to base merit pay on math or reading scores. But a teacher who is particularly effective in math instruction may not also be unusually effective in reading. Paying teachers for math or reading scores will, if it works, also give them incentives to ignore curricular areas for which they are not rewarded. Pay-for-performance will, therefore, accentuate the curricular distortions we have already experienced under No Child Left Behind.

There is some evidence from psychology that when people are intrinsically motivated to succeed, and are then given financial rewards for success, these rewards can undermine the intrinsic motivation. Many young people go into teaching with a commitment to children and a belief in education’s importance. They want and demand adequate compensation, but the best teachers may be those who, in addition, have a deep commitment to the norms of the profession. We should do more to investigate whether we will undermine that commitment with “pay-for-performance,” before implementing such schemes.

7. If we can agree that the current accountability system is flawed, what system should we be advocating in its place?

I cannot specify a detailed alternative, but experts more qualified than I should begin now to develop one. It will require considerable experimentation to design a constructive accountability policy.

In Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right, I and my co-authors (Rebecca Jacobsen and Tamara Wilder) set forth some proposals to consider. One is expanding the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to provide state-by-state comparative information on a wider variety of curricular areas including other academic subjects, like history and the sciences.

A chapter of the book recounts the little-known history of early NAEP, when the federal government reported on behavioral characteristics of a representative sample of American students. NAEP provided information on whether students could work cooperatively, had good health, dietary, and exercise habits, were learning to participate constructively in our civic life, had appreciation and knowledge of the arts and music. A return to this NAEP model could give states the knowledge they need to infer whether their public schools were performing better or worse than those in other states, not only in math and reading but in many more of the curricular areas that comprise a balanced education.

The book also suggests learning from the experience of other nations that have been debating how to hold schools accountable for better performance. Grading Education provides a more detailed description of the English inspectorate system that uses test scores but also sends trained professional experts into schools to evaluate the quality of teaching, as well as students’ behavior and the development of character traits emphasized in the curriculum.

Recently, a committee of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA) campaign met to develop principles for a new American accountability system. I was privileged to serve on that committee, and in some respects, its recommendations overlap with those of Grading Education. The principal BBA recommendation is that states hold schools accountable by conducting inspections using trained professional evaluators, able to judge the quality of educational delivery and outcome. Test scores should not be abandoned, but should not be the sole measure of school effectiveness. As of this writing, committee members are polishing their report; it should appear soon on the BBA website. Any readers who wish to receive a copy of the report once it is posted should send a note to boldapproach@epi.org with “send accountability report” in the subject line.

What do you think? Do you think performance pay might undermine teachers’ intrinsic motivation? Should educators be looking for alternatives means of accountability?

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.