Performance-Based Pay Systems for Teachers Being Re-Examined

By Lynn Olson — April 15, 1987 18 min read
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Career ladders and other methods for paying teachers based on performance--once considered a cornerstone of many state reform efforts--today are undergoing extensive scrutiny and, in some cases, revisions.

This changing attitude is most obvious in three key states that adopted large-scale career ladders early in their campaigns to improve education.

In Florida, lawmakers last year moved to save the state’s embattled Master Teacher program by entirely recasting it, and in both Tennessee and Texas, legislators are hammering out modifications in their programs.

According to the Southern Regional Education Board, 29 states either have statewide teacher-incentive programs, provide funding for locally developed plans, are pilot-testing various models, or have mandates that enable them to do so.

Districts across the country are also working to create such plans with or without state assistance.

U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett drew attention to the status of state-sponsored career ladders last week when he portrayed such programs as “under attack’’ in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

Mr. Bennett, who characterized pay based on performance as “a genuine, original, and indispensable article of education reform,’' also accused Maine of “backsliding’’ on education reform, because it has proposed deleting an experimental “master teacher’’ step from a state certification law passed in 1984.

Representatives from the first three states last week insisted that they would not eliminate their performance-pay plans. But they admitted that the programs are under fire and are likely to be revamped, at the urging of both teachers and administrators.

Moreover, educators across the country have watched with dismay the political battles over statewide career ladders in Florida, Tennessee, and Texas. In a number of states, enthusiasm for career ladders and the pace of their implementation have diminished accordingly.

Very few states are now moving forward with the kind of centralized, statewide teacher-incentive plans that appeared in the first few years of the school-reform movement.

Instead, they are opting for extended pilot programs and decentralized models, which provide funding and support for districts to design their own plans under broad state guidelines.

Florida’s program, for example, has been redesigned to include greater control and flexibility at the local level.

“I think that’s the trend we will continue to see,’' Lynn Cornett, director of the SREB’s career-ladder clearinghouse, predicted last week. “I don’t think we’ll see the same kind of centralized programs that we had in the past.’'

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, agreed: “I think state-imposed career ladders are not going to be very popular, because basically people have gotten a lot smarter. They know that you can’t bring about improvements by imposing them from the top.’'

He argued that in many places, school boards and teachers are now working together to develop district-based career ladders. “The movement to develop career ladders and differentiated staffing is increasing,’' he noted, “but on a much healthier basis.’'

‘Factory Workers’

Ms. Cornett argued that it is too soon to tell whether performance-pay plans are working, or if they are “here to stay.’'

Advocates contend that performance-based pay can meet the public’s demand for accountability, help attract and retain talented professionals in the classroom, and motivate teachers to teach better.

Opponents say the programs are administrative nightmares that create competition and dissension among teachers and destroy morale. Such systems reward a few teachers, they argue, as a way to avoid paying all teachers well.

A number of national reports over the past year--including those from the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, the Holmes Group, and the National Governors’ Association--strongly endorsed performance-based pay plans, calling for more differentiation among teachers in both pay and job responsibilities.

But it is unclear, according to experts, whether career ladders as they now exist are the answer--or even part of the answer--to the call for differentiated staffing.

Several of those interviewed last week, including Mr. Shanker, suggested that career ladders would never succeed as long as they are grafted on to the existing school structure.

“It’s like trying to take a bunch of skills and a structure and impose them on, let’s say, the old-fashioned automobile industry,’' he argued.

“In the old-fashioned automobile factory, you can give a person a different title and more money and responsibility,’' he said. “But if you’re sending them right back to the old-fashioned assembly line, all you’re going to get is a factory worker.’'

‘Too Early’

There are no in-depth studies of how well the current performance-based pay plans are working--although history offers numerous examples of past failures.

“What we are not seeing thus far are any real program evaluations,’' Ms. Cornett said. “It’s probably, in terms of that kind of evaluation, too early.’'

She suggested that for an incentive-pay plan to work, it must have strong leadership at the state and local levels, substantial state funding, sound evaluation procedures, and broad-based teacher support.

In addition, performance-based pay programs may fare best in districts where teachers already have relatively good working relationships with their administrators.

Judy Richardson, a legislative research analyst for the Arizona Senate and director of the state’s career-ladder pilot program, said, “We’re learning that if districts have any other problems, a career-ladder program is not going to help.’'

“It takes a very well-run district, that has good communication, to pull one off,’' she argued.

The large amount of money required to run statewide career ladders has also become problematic now that many states are facing fiscal crises.

Funding Key

According to Ms. Cornett, state finances have determined whether programs are being carried out as fully or as quickly as once intended.

“Without adequate funding,’' she said, “career ladders cannot become a part of the fabric of the school.’'

  • In Texas, for example, a proposal now before the legislature would provide nearly $500 million for the career ladder over the next two years.

Meanwhile, Gov. William P. Clements has proposed cutting the program by $165 million during the same biennium--in part, by delaying the date when teachers could move to the top two tiers of the ladder.

Richard Swain, assistant commissioner for professional development in the state department of education, contended that the program has never been adequately funded.

Last year, for example, districts in Texas identified more teachers as eligible for rewards than they could afford to pay. The problem was exacerbated because the current statewide evaluation instrument did not yet exist.

  • In Florida, the law creating the state’s career ladder requires at least $90 million in funding beginning in 1988, or the program will automatically expire.

Michael Kane, president of the Citizens’ Council for Education in Florida, estimates that the program could cost as much as $300 million when it is fully operational.

Gov. Bob Martinez has not included any money for the program in his 1987-88 budget request, but he plans to finance it in the following year with funds from a new statewide lottery.

Legislative staff members last week said it was too early to predict how the program would fare during the current session.

  • Alabama lawmakers approved a statewide career ladder in 1985. Implementation of the program was delayed one year, while educators worked to design an evaluation system to measure teachers’ performance.

Under the current plan, teachers would begin receiving additional pay beginning in 1988-89. But legislators now question whether they will have money to pay for the program, whose total cost is still undetermined.

State Representative Jim Campbell, chairman of the Joint Legislative Council, described chances of providing funds for the career ladder as it now exists as “one, slim, and two, none.’'

  • In Utah, where the state faced a budget deficit of more than $100- million going into its legislative session, the career-ladder program was the only major reform to survive cost-cutting measures. The program was funded for one more year at $41- million.

Betty Condie, president of the Utah Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said: “Every year it’s a battle to try and keep that money in career ladders. We fear the real backsliding will come next year.’'

Slowed Progress

In other states, fiscal constraints have kept career-ladder plans in the pilot stages, or prevented them from getting off the ground.

  • Funding for Kentucky’s career-ladder pilot runs out on June 30. The original two-year pilot was reduced to a one-year, $2.5-million program to save money.

Sally Lee Gates, assistant director for the state’s career-ladder commission, said, “At this point, we have a lot of support from the field, but we don’t have any monies that have been specifically designated for next year.’' She described the future as “tenuous.’'

  • In New Mexico, about 10 percent of the state’s 88 school districts have provided the department of education with plans for some type of performance-based pay system, in the hope that funding will be available.

But Susan M. Brown, director of the division of educator preparation and licensure in the state department of education, said, “We’re one of the oil-producing states, so everything has been put on hold for the time being.’'

Other states--including Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska--have also had to delay implementation of statewide or pilot programs because of a lack of funding.

Arthur E. Wise, director of the RAND Corporation’s center for the study of the teaching profession, said he thinks interest in career ladders is waning.

“They have lots of costs, raise lots of management issues, and, of course, have yet to have any of the favorable consequences that advocates had hoped they would,’' he said.

“In a way, that’s a premature judgment,’' he added, “because they really haven’t been implemented well enough or long enough’’ to see results.

Reduced Aggravation

The evaluations used to identify deserving teachers remain one of the stickiest problems for all of the current performance-based pay programs.

Texas, for example, is in the first year of using a statewide evaluation instrument.

Charles N. Beard Jr., president of the Texas State Teachers’ Association, an NEA affiliate, said his union favors a statewide appraisal system--but not the existing one.

“There are too many indicators,’' he said. “There are 70 some-odd indicators that a teacher must be checked on in a 45-minute class period.’'

Governor Clements recently created a state task force to find ways to improve both the career ladder and its evaluation system.

Carl Parker, chairman of the state Senate’s Education Committee, said that revisions in the career ladder approved last week by both the House and Senate Education Committees were “aimed at lowering the cost of the career ladder a little bit and reducing the level of aggravation substantially.’'

Among other things, the bill would reduce the number of annual evaluations required for teachers who are teaching well.

‘A Mess’

In Tennessee, Will Locke, president of the Tennessee Education Association, also an NEA. affiliate, described the evaluation process as “a mess.’'

“It’s a statistical mishmash of stuff that is difficult to explain and cannot be understood by very many people,’' he said.

A recent poll of the TEA’s membership found that 91 percent of those surveyed did not believe the evaluation plan could differentiate good teachers from excellent teachers, and 85 percent did not believe it could work fairly or effectively.

A bill now before the legislature would reduce the number of full-scale evaluations for teachers on the upper ends of the career ladder, and give more responsibility for testing to local school districts.

State Senator Frank Lashlee said that revisions approved by the House and Senate Education Committees last week would, among other things, reduce the bureaucracy that has grown up around the evaluation system.

“We found out that under [former] Gov. Lamar Alexander, the monies weren’t going to the classroom,’' he said. “They were going to the bureaucracy.’' For the career-ladder program alone, he said, more than $2 million worth of salaried employees were hired in the past 18 months.

‘Lot of Questions’

Alabama created its evaluation system because “over half the school systems in this state didn’t have any classroom-evaluation process whatsoever,’' Representative Campbell said.

“I was one of the proponents of the career ladder, and still am,’' he said, “but whether the evaluation process that has been adopted is an effective one or not, we don’t yet know.’'

During three days of hearings this year, he stated, teachers and administrators characterized the evaluations as “cumbersome’’ and difficult to administer.

In North Carolina, Gov. James Martin has proposed expanding a 16-district pilot program to another 10 or 12 districts next year and statewide in 1988-89. However, he has run into stiff opposition from lawmakers and teachers.

Aaron Fussell, chairman of the House Education Committee, predicted that lawmakers would not expand the pilot program--in part because of complaints from teachers about the evaluation procedures.

Robert D. Warren, chairman of the Senate’s education panel, agreed: “I doubt if it will be expanded a great deal. I think we’ll test it further. ... We still have a lot of questions about it.’'

Fundamental Problems

According to Mr. Wise of the RAND Corporation, the “fundamental problems involved with creating evaluation systems that people think are reliable and valid are still there. We have not solved them in ways which most participants find to be compelling.’'

Samuel Bacharach, a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University and the chairman of the advisory board for Organizational Analysis and Practice Inc., said: “It seems to me that we began with merit pay; we moved to career ladders; and now we’re floundering someplace.’'

“The primary reason that I think we’re floundering,’' he added, “is that everybody refused to bite the bullet--and that’s evaluation.’'

The S.R.E.B.'s Ms. Cornett and others argued that the creation of performance-pay programs has hastened improvements in the measures used to evaluate teachers.

In some cases, such programs have also increased the amount of training and staff development offered to both teachers and administrators.

But Ms. Cornett added that no one has put the evaluation instruments to the ultimate test: Whether teachers whose performance is judged to be superior have students who are actually learning more.

“That’s a needed step,’' she said, “but I think it’s going to take a little while to get to that point.’'

Student Achievement

In fact, some states have tried to include measures of student achievement in their evaluation system for teachers--on the assumption that improved student performance is the “bottom line’’ in assessing teacher performance.

In South Carolina, for instance, some measure of student achievement is included in each of the pilot programs that are now operating in one-third of the state’s school districts.

Arizona has also required all of the districts in its pilot program to include consideration of student achievement.

“Frankly, I think a lot of them are not weighing it very heavily,’' said Ms. Richardson, project director for the career-ladder program.

“I don’t think they’re comfortable that they have good measures,’' she said. “It takes a while to standardize it and to make it fair.’'

In Utah, the legislature defeated a proposal by Gov. Norman H. Bangerter to tie the program more heavily to student achievement. But Carol Clark, the Governor’s education adviser, said, “We pushed it this year, and we’ll push it again.’'

Teacher Support

In part because of controversies over the evaluation instruments, support for performance-based pay plans has varied widely from state to state, from district to district, and over time.

Howard Carroll, a spokesman for the NEA, said, “The problem with pay-incentive programs is that we’re caught up in semantics.’'

“The bottom line is that if teachers are involved in the beginning, at the outset, on any of these pay plans--regardless of what you call them--and it meets with their satisfaction, then it’s fine.’'

In Florida, for example, both the AFT and NEA affiliates were left out of the planning process for the original Master Teacher program, enacted in 1983. The unions subsequently complained that the plan was really a “merit pay’’ proposal in disguise--and they fought strenuously to see it abolished.

The new program was created with the strong participation of the teachers’ unions, and looks more like a traditional career ladder. Each district program must be negotiated locally and approved by the state department of education.

Currently, 40 of Florida’s 67 school districts have applied to participate in the first year of the program, representing more than two-thirds of the state’s total teacher population.

In Tennessee, Ken Renner, a spokesman for Gov. Ned Ray McWherter, said the Governor has tried to work closely with the teachers’ unions to overcome past animosities.

“There was a time in the not very recent past when these things were presented to them as a fait accompli,’' he said, “and the only place they had to turn to was the legislature. What we’re trying to do is develop a more cooperative attitude.’'

Attitudes Changing?

In some states--such as Alabama and Utah--teachers and their unions have supported the career ladders since the beginning.

In others--including Florida, Tennessee, and Texas--the unions appear to be moving from an hostile stance to one of wary cooperation.

“Ideally, if you want to just back up two or four years, we opposed the concept of the career ladder,’' said Mr. Beard of the N.E.A.'s affiliate in Texas. “Where do we stand at this point in time? We’re interested in trying to salvage this thing as best we can.’'

He continued: “And our mandate, which we have from our [union’s] state house of delegates, which is our governing body, is to either fix it or get rid of it. So we’re trying to fix it.’'

In part, explained Mr. Beard, “what we’re faced with is political reality.’' Approximately half of the state’s 180,000 teachers are receiving additional pay of $1,500 to $2,000 a year for attaining the second step of the career ladder. If lawmakers do away with that, he said, “you’re going to give a pay cut to half the teachers in the state.’'

In Tennessee, the T.E.A. survey found that 45 percent of its members still think the career ladder should be abolished, but 55 percent do not. In addition, teachers continue to apply for the more controversial upper levels of the program. Thus far, approximately 4,300 of the state’s 46,000 teachers have qualified for those levels, which bring salary supplements as high as $7,000.

Average Pay

In some states, however, teachers continue to argue that career ladders and other performance-based pay plans are beside the point, until the starting or average teacher salaries improve.

In 1984, Maine passed a certification law that included a pilot test of a three-tiered system designed to “reward good teachers,’' according to Representative Stephen Bost, chairman of the state legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Education.

The legislature is now considering doing away with the third tier for a variety of reasons, including the strenuous opposition of the Maine Teachers Association/NEA

Among other objections, the union has charged that developing standards for master teachers is extremely difficult, and that differentiating among teachers is divisive.

In addition, Thomas Vassallo, president of the MTA, said he is not interested in talking about master teachers when the base pay for teachers in Maine next year will be $15,500--or 48th in the nation.

In South Carolina, Elaine Marks, president of the South Carolina Education Association, another NEA affiliate, said: “We tied into the pilot plan with the understanding that the average teacher salary [in the state] would meet the Southeastern average. But if the political community reneged on the Southeastern average, then we would no longer be a part of the consortium.’'

Last week, Governor McWherter of Tennessee promised representatives of the TEA that he would raise the starting salary for teachers in the state to $18,500 over the next two years, if they would promise to help him tighten the budget. Governor Martinez of Florida has also proposed a substantial salary increase for teachers.

‘Go Slow’ Approach

For all of these reasons, many states have adopted a “go slow’’ attitude toward career ladders that contrasts sharply with the rush to embrace them during the early years of the reform movement.

Terry K. Peterson, executive director of the Joint Business Education Committee in South Carolina, which monitors that state’s education-improvement act, said, “The feeling has been that we’re making good orderly progress by phasing it in in a number of districts at a time.’'

“That allows you an opportunity to work through any problems, to fine-tune the different evaluation systems,’' he explained. “And I think most people feel comfortable that what has evolved is a good way to proceed.’'

Ms. Richardson of Arizona said she was not sure whether her state would ever adopt a statewide career-ladder program. “I think we are pleased with the program,’' she said. “We are learning a lot.’'

“I think we’re discovering that it takes a lot longer to implement these things than people thought,’' she added. “We need adequate time to test these requirements to see if they’re working, before we can know if we want to require them of everybody.’'

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