Incentive Pay

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Accountability has been a central principle, along with fairness and affordability, in my district's contract talks this year with both teachers and administrators. The reason for this is simple: Success must be measured before it can be rewarded. Pay increases should not be based solely on time served in a position or the number of academic degrees held, but also on performance as measured by specific standards.

In the case of teachers, this is an issue that has been raised by parents and educators for years. In fact, even the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, has said that "coursework and seniority do not guarantee knowledge and skill" and, for that reason, "it's more important to recognize that incentives do work; they are major motivators of the behavior of individuals and systems."

The Rochester, N.Y., school district, which I head, has been consistent in its belief that an incentive system of accountability for both schools and individuals (in addition to pay increases guaranteed by state law) is logical, fair, and necessary. This is especially true given our more than 10-year history of unacceptable student performance. To the credit of teachers, parents, administrators, support staff, and the community, some Rochester schools have made gains, but "some" is not enough.

Members of the business community--the future employers of today's students--are similarly frustrated with the results of America's schools. As Milton Goldberg, the senior vice president for education of the National Alliance of Business, puts it, "Business can't understand why teachers can work forever and have no change in their tenure based on whether students have done better or worse or the same. Business can't imagine a system where there are no incentives or consequences for failure or success."

Despite the obvious benefits an incentive system offers, several myths have been perpetuated to cast it in a negative light.

  • Myth No. 1: An incentive system for teachers would be based solely on students' performance on standardized tests.

Reality: Student performance is just one of the standards on which teacher evaluations would be based. Others would include such areas as teaching competency, home and community involvement, and professional development. That would thus negate the argument made by some that pay for performance has no place in a human-services profession like teaching. Yes, a system based solely on student test scores would be unfair--schools are not factories--but this is not something my district supports or has asked teachers to accept.

  • Myth No. 2: An incentive system would create competition rather than cooperation between teachers.

Reality: Under our incentive-pay plan, every teacher who met the standards would be eligible for incentive pay, not just some at the expense of others. It would not be an "either-or" arrangement leading to cutthroat competition and paranoia over stolen lesson plans. In fact, our hope is that every teacher in every school would meet or exceed the standards. How could our students not benefit from that level of performance?

  • Myth No. 3: Teachers' entire pay increase would be dependent on performance evaluations.

Reality: In Rochester, 60 percent to 70 percent of each teacher's annual salary increase would be guaranteed contractually and legally. Only 30 percent to 40 percent of the salary increase would be dependent on a performance evaluation.

The most important fact of all in the incentive-system debate is that students would benefit. Our "classroom resource fund," initiated jointly last year by the district and the Rochester Teachers Association, rewards schools in the city that demonstrate accountability for student performance. Of our 53 schools, fewer than half qualified for this monetary award in 1995-96. It is unquestionably a good system, but the number of students who benefit from it is limited.

A system of individual accountability, such as an incentive system, would benefit a far greater number of students. An estimated 98 percent of teachers are likely either to meet or exceed the district's standards for performance. And every teacher who does so reaches an entire elementary class or eight classes at the middle and high school level with his or her exemplary performance.

The need for this kind of system is obvious, the benefits to students are clear, and the time to adopt it is now.

Vol. 16, Issue 10, Page 38

Published in Print: November 6, 1996, as Incentive Pay
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