Education Chat

Teachers and Performance Pay

Members of TeacherSolutions, a group advocating for performance pay for teachers, discussed the challenges and issues surrounding the topic.

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Teachers and Performance Pay

Lori Nazareno, a math and science facilitator at Barnum Elementary School in Denver; and Nancy Flanagan, a recently retired music teacher who is now working on a doctorate in education policy at Michigan State University

Anthony Rebora, (Moderator):
Welcome to our live chat on performance pay for teachers. Recently, TeacherSolutions, a group of prominent teachers convened by the Center for Teaching Quality, released a report strongly advocating for performance-pay systems for teachers.

Two members of that group have graciously joined us for today’s chat: Lori Nazareno, a math and science facilitator at Barnum Elementary School in Denver; and Nancy Flanagan, a recently retired music teacher who is now working on a doctorate in education policy at Michigan State University. They’ll be taking your questions about TeacherSolutions’ recommendations and about the challenges and issues surrounding performance pay. We’ve got a lot of really good questions so let’s get started.

Question from Deanna Enos/Retired Teacher Elementary:
Who would be making the decisions on the performance of the teachers? Could these decisions not become politically motivated and thus destructive to the stability of school staffs?

Nancy Flanagan:
It’s important to remember that protocols for fairly assessing teacher performance should always be determined with teachers having a genuine voice in setting the parameters. All teacher performance, we believe, should be assessed via multiple and diverse measures.

The TeacherSolutions team agreed that shifting teacher evaluation from student test scores alone to principal evaluations alone would not be useful or viable. There is some research (out of the Hoover Institute) that suggests that principals do a great job of evaluating their best and worst teachers (the top/bottom 10% or so) but are not particularly adept at determining teacher efficacy with a majority of teachers in the mid-range. And many classroom teachers have had experience with principals whose evaluations were not consistent or based on the most important indicators.

So, while an administrative evaluation might certainly be one mark of effective teaching, other assessments should be included: student work, peer evaluations, parent observations, portfolios, etc. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards uses a combination of videotapes, teacher commentary, analysis of actual student work across time, and content testing. There are many ways to accomplish this.

Question from Francis E. Gardner Jr, Emeritus Professor of Biology, Columbus State University:
When you advocate performance pay increases for “teacher leadership” does this include positions of responsibility in professional organizations (local, state, and national), and serving on committees of these various organizations? What are the pros and cons of awarding credit for such activities.

Lori Nazareno:
Our report provides a framework for districts to utilize when designing their own system for compensating their teachers differently. The decision about whether participation and leadership in professional organizations should be compensated would lie with the district when developing their plan. However, we are consistent throughout our recommendations that those actions and behaviors that directly impact student learning in a positive manner should be compensated. Also, those leadership activities that help to advise and create educational policy and improve teaching practices should be compensated.

Personally, I feel that participation and leadership in professional organizations, as the name suggests, is part of the responsibility of being a “professional” educator. When we look at other professions, the members and leaders of these organizations are not compensated for their participation in these activities. However, other professions with their own organizations most often govern and control their own standards and practices, unlike in education.

The advantages of compensating teacher leaders for leadership in professional organizations could be a potential increase in participation. However, the disadvantages could include increased participation in order to receive compensation, but not necessarily to contribute to the profession.

Ultimately, the decision on what teacher leadership activities should be compensated should lie with the individual districts with input from its teachers. However, the impact of participation on student learning should remain central in that decision.

Question from Tracey Mack, 6th grade teacher:
Where do finanially struggling districts get the money to pay these highly qualified and grossly underpaid educators?

Nancy Flanagan:
Excellent question. The TeacherSolutions team began with the idea that effective, “above and beyond” teachers deserved more pay, and the conviction that there were compelling reasons for states, districts and other community groups to seek creative funding sources. We don’t want to begin a discussion of how to pay good teachers well for their special talents with the idea that there is no money for education, and never will be money for education, so we’re stuck with an ineffective salary system.

We pay for what we value--so perhaps the first step is making clear what good teachers offer to a school system, and what it will take to keep them in the classroom. This might be an increase in salary, and it might also be a range of other things (support, collegiality, opportunity for growth and influence). At present, schools pay teachers more for two things, seniority and graduate hours, neither of which is necessarily tied to improved learning or reaching educational goals. We are talking here about re-prioritizing use of existing resources, as well as seeking new sources of funding. Teacher leaders will need to help lead the drive to fund schools and pay teachers adequately.

Question from Frances Franey, teacher, Camden County Technical School:
Since all learners are not created equally, how will the teacher who has low level, unmotivated students be compensated?

Lori Nazareno:
Having spent my enitre career working with high needs students and in high needs schools, you have touched on something near and dear to my heart. We believe that teachers should be compenstaed for helping students make significant academic gains. We must consider where students start when talking about academic gains. Teachers should be expected to move ALL student forward, whether they are at grade level, above grade level, or below grade level.

In my experienced teachers have been hestitant to move to more challenging schools exactly because of this issue. If teachers are rewarded solely on student performance, we MUST consider where students start in order to get accomplished teachers in front of the student who need them the most.

Question from John Golden, English Teacher, Grant High School, Portland, Oregon:
First, congratulations to your team on a very exciting and necessary project: it is wonderful to hear policy proposals coming from the folks who will be most affected by them. My question to you is not about implementation or any of your specific proposals, but rather one of spillover, unanticipated consequences. When employees have different salaries (other than by seniority as it is in most school settings now) it injects a different atmosphere into the school environment. Most of us have probably spent most of our careers in K-12 settings without the competition of the private sector. It is a different feeling. As public employees, too, all salaries would need to be made public. Did your group discuss the role that differentiated salaries could have on a school’s community? Would every teacher – the coach, the single parent, the paper-buried English teacher (lol)-- really have the same opportunities to access these pay-increasing opportunities? I’d be curious to hear about what your group made of this. Thanks for your time and your contributions.

Nancy Flanagan:
And thanks for your thoughtful comments, John.

I think we have to look at the realities of school dynamics under the single-salary system we currently have in place, which rewards (often poorly monitored) course-taking and staying in one school/district. The atmosphere created is often a stagnant labor pool (since taking another job often means a serious reduction in salary for veteran teachers) and shared information about easy courses to take to move over on the salary grid (as opposed to exciting professional learning opportunities which may not carry course credits). New teachers who have innovative ideas, create new courses, or volunteer for leadership roles are not rewarded. Hardly a professional work atmosphere at present. Re-organizing pay principles to reflect a school’s identified needs and goals would certainly re-shuffle the deck, but we would be able to reward positive behaviors and fill needs.

As a music teacher, it was very important to me to have access to opportunities for extra pay in our template for those whose work is valuable but not tested---people like coaches, kindergarten teachers, etc. As for the overworked English teacher, perhaps they would assign more writing if their student loads were significantly reduced (a perk many would choose, perhaps even over a raise in salary). We believe that differentiating salaries to reflect skills and results will spur new teacher effort and entice good teachers to stay in the classroom.

Question from Heather Porterfield, Assistant Principal, PG County MD:
How would this attract highly qualified teachers with experience to low performing schools that have a history of low academic performance when the teacher pay would focus on high academic gains?

Nancy Flanagan:
This was an extremely important issue for us in doing the research and writing for the report. Several of the 18 TeacherSolutions team members teach in high-needs schools, and we all agreed that simply getting teachers to agree to come to challenging schools was not enough.

Our report endorses additional performance pay for teachers in high needs schools, but only if they have special training and an aptitude for working with the students there. Teacher pay would focus on academic GAINS, not comparison scores,an important distinction. We believe (and know from our own experience) that students in high-needs schools are very capable, when connected to teachers who demand excellence and believe in their students’ ability. We also know that the revolving door of underprepared teachers who are often the norm in high-needs schools cost more, in the end, than paying upfront for the best teachers available who have the experience and commitment to make a difference.

Question from Kathy, high school science teacher, TX:
I’m all for performance pay--I spend a lot of my personal free time improving my craft and tutoring students. I think many teachers are concerned that merit pay will only benefit the teachers of high-performing students and the teachers who work with more difficult or low-performing students will be left out. How do we reward the teachers of these students for a job well done despite the low academic success of the students? What are the measurable quantities of “good” teaching that can be used to determine a teacher’s quality?

Nancy Flanagan:
We have had a terrific public response to the report--and most of the pushback has been around the misunderstanding that you bring up here: only the teachers of students who score high on standardized tests will be rewarded. In fact, there is a section in the report entitled “What Not to Do” where we explain why such a limited conception of “merit pay” can be destructive to the principles of improving teaching that guide our thinking on teachers should be compensated.

There are lots of ways to build a performance-pay system that recognize outstanding teacher performance with student populations that bring challenges to the classroom. First, using growth models in looking at student test data is important. Teachers should also be able to demonstrate learning using analysis of actual student work products. Teachers who continually upgrade their skills and knowledge to meet changing student needs, or take leadership roles (curriculum development, mentoring, professional development, community liaisons) to build a stronger learning environment should also have their contributions rewarded. All of these things--and more--are detailed in the report. Happy reading.

Question from Jeremy Hohertz, graduate student, Miami University:
Having read the full report, it is not clear to me exactly what constitutes a novice, professional or expert teacher. My question is, who or what determines the advancement of a teacher along this pay scale? Is it student test scores? Student evaluation forms? The prinicpal’s opinion?

Lori Nazareno:
Thank you for your question Jeremy. The Professional-Compensation Framework that appears in our TeacherSolutions report represents an example of how our recommendations mught play out in a particular district. Our team felt that there were different levels of performance among teachers and that those levels should be rewarded and compensated. We felt VERY strongly that all teachers should have the opportunity to move through these levels of the profession. Many previously developed “career-ladders” have only allowed a finite number of teachers in a district to achieve the highest levels of the lader. Esentially, you had to “kick someone off” of the rung above you if you wanted to move up.

It is esential that ALL teacher have the opportunity to move forward in their career and that, lie with students, we use mutiple measures to determine how that occurs. Of course, all of us who have been in education for any period of time know the challenges associated with one person making the determination of whether you have “performed” or not. Any number of items idetified in our four pillars could be used to determine how teachers move from novice to advance, and from advanced to expert. Of course, the specifics would have to be determined by the district that implements a ne compensation system.

Question from Patricia Moore Shaffer, Student, College of William & Mary:
On page 10 of the TeacherSolutions report, it sounds like the authors have some concern about the implementation of the federal Teacher Incentive Fund. Could you elaborate on the reason for this concern?

Nancy Flanagan:
The Center for Teaching Quality, which sponsors both the Teacher Leaders Network and the TeacherSolutions project, with the goal of bringing the teacher voice to the education policy table, held a conference in Chicago (April 26/7) to introduce the performance-pay report. There were a number of districts and individual schools with TIF grants at the conference, and some spoke publicly about the challenge of creating performance-pay plans. We salute districts and schools who are thoughtfully approaching this funded opportunity to pay teachers for excellence and innovation by looking at the best thinking on the subject. We believe that teacher pay systems should be re-thought with or without additional funding, but the TIF funds certainly put the idea on the front burner as well as providing needed resources to launch useful change.

Our worry was always that states/districts would adopt old, limited ideas about rewarding teachers strictly on the basis of compared statewide assessment scores, and hard-working teachers who are making a huge difference in hard-to-staff schools would be bypassed. The dangers of focusing on one test score to compare teacher effectiveness are well-known: narrowed curriculum, pedagogy that does not reflect skills needed for 21st century workers, teachers who are unwilling to work with the kids who need them the most.

Since the USDOE has provided these funds, we are pleased to see many districts aiming to use them to make long-lasting, positive changes toward rewarding the best teaching.

Question from Beverly Wagle, Teacher, Michigan Elementary:
I have two Master’s and an elementary certification with Math, Science and Computer Science minors. I was told by two principals that they could not hire me because they were given a directive that they can only hire people with no experience and people who have no more than a bachelor degree because of budget reasons. How will schools be able to afford extra pay for lead teachers, or performance pay etc if they cannot even afford to hire a person with additional education? Where will the dollars come from?

Lori Nazareno:
Beverly, hearing your story touches a place in me that gets extremely frustrated when decisions are made based on anything other than what is best for our kids. Which goes to something that Nancy has already stated - we pay for what we value. We need to be very clear about how much education is...or is not... valued in this country, in our districts and in our schools. Unless are willing to pay for high quality, it makes it challenhing to expectat it.

One idea that always floats around in my head is about how are speding the money that we do have already. Having come from an extremely large district with and extrememly large budget, I just wonder if we are allocating resources in the most effective and efficient manner. We should all be asking how much of the money in the budget actually goes into things that directly impact students. Also, a restructuring of the pay scale could possible result in available funding.

Good luck to you!

Question from Robert Lange, Ph.D retired:
What research shows that teachers who know more really do have more positive impacts on student learning?

Nancy Flanagan:
Interesting question. I’m sure you realize that a great deal of the research shows that teachers with advanced degrees have little demonstrable impact on increased student learning. In fact, teachers with PhDs are less effective, by some measures, than other teachers. It comes down to your definition of “knowing” something. Any teacher will tell you that straight content knowledge, while essential, is not sufficient. Nor is it enough to be engaging and able to motivate students, with gaps in your content knowledge. You have to have both--which is why testing pre-service teachers for content mastery is a good idea, but does not guarantee effective practice.

In the performance-pay report, we stressed that accumulating graduate credit hours was no guarantee of improved practice. (Many of us worked with teachers who earned a masters degree on their district’s dime, then changed careers!) Our recommendation that teachers be rewarded for relevant knowledge and skills was based on the idea that many important ideas and competencies that teachers pick up during their careers do not involve graduate credits. Teachers need to continuously increase their knowledge--the world is changing, and so is disciplinary content--but they must demonstrate that increase in knowledge and skills is useful in increasing student learning.

Question from Lisa Blais, Director of Contract Research, The Education Partnership:
Do you have any sense of teacher’s opinions (interest level) of performance-based pay as compared with the teacher unions positions?

Lori Nazareno:
Good question and one that MUST be addressed in order for teachers to have buy-in on something that can seem like yet-another-thing-coming-at-us. I moved from a school district that has a traditional palary schdule to a Denver Public Schools, that has a Professional Compensation System (ProComp). Before my move and during my work with the TacherSolutions team were very involved in and concerned about how teachers would view these recommendation. Obviously, since we have all taught and many, including myself, still teach. The overwhelming sense from my accomplished colleagues from the district where I came from, was that of interest and support. We all looked at Denver’s Plan and saw many things that all of us were doing already and would like to have been compensated for.

Now that I am in Denver there seems to be strong support of the plan and many veteran teachers are now opting into ProComp because they have seen how it could benefit them. Those of us who are new to the district are reequired to be in ProComp, but those who have already been here can “opt in” if they choose. I must also say that Denver’s ProComp plan was developed in conjunction with the union. They were fully supportive and involved in all aspects of the developement of the plan.

That said, I can impagine that those teacher who do not support the new compensation plan have reservations about who will be in charge and how their performance will be evaluated. This is a legitimate concern and one that MUST be addressed from the beginning of the development of any district’s plan.

Question from D R Harris, Library Media, Wake County, NC:
I can remember my mother, a retired teacher, talking about career ladder / performance pay 20 years ago. Do you think the system outlined in the report is realistically doable and able to be supported by districts? Or is this just another “educational fad” that will only last until the money runs out or someone at the top decides there must be something better? Is this performance pay system sustainable?

Nancy Flanagan:
While we put the salary grid in the report as a sample, we also noted that any tiered system would look different in varying locations. Many “career ladder” plans foundered over the years because they were nothing more than chopping the old single-salary steps and lanes into pieces. What we are talking about is restructuring the basis for pay raises for teachers, not laying new rewards on top of the old “entitlement” ideas for teacher pay.

While restructuring teacher pay has a tantalizing idea for decades, I think the fact that the USDOE has now granted federal money, through the Teacher Incentive Fund, to support the idea means that it’s not a fad. Whether the idea is financially sustainable also varies from place to place. In Denver, city residents overwhelmingly approved a tax increase to support a pay-for-performance plan. I think that’s a good sign that pay for performance may be sustainable.

Question from Geraldine Dahlquist,Eng teacher, Lanier HS:
Isn’t “pay for performance” just a way to buy teachers on the cheap? Using these incentives for teachers in high poverty, high minority schools will just drive teachers to gimmicks to look better on the tests -- more drill, more interim testing, mucking with the ‘numbers’ and to driving good teachers away into better schools. How is this going to provide real educations to kids who need it most?

Lori Nazareno:
I would hate to think that the TeacherSolutions Report in any way, shape or form gave the impression that we are trying to buy tachers “on the cheap”. On the contrary, we tried to develop recommendations that would encourage accomplished teachers to seek more challenging assignements, rather than shy away from them. We were very mindful of what it might take to get accomplished tachers to work with the students who need them the most and tried to develop incentives for this very challenging work. We feel very strongly that high needs students should be given high quality instruction by accomplished teachers, not drill and gimmicks. Those integrated and differentiated lessons should be tailored to the specific needs of those children and provide them with an enriched and high qualtiy education. That takes thought, time and skill. We believe teachers who do all of this in a thoughtful and effective manner should be compensated MORE...not less. They should be encouraged to stay there and share their expertise with other teachers and be given the opportunity to lead their colleagues and their shcool to improve learning for ALL students.

We are suggesting compensating teachers MORE for the knowledge and skills that really count and affect student learning well beyond test scores!

Question from David Schlein, Labor Economist, NEA:
The report points out that the single salary schedule was designed for good reasons such as promoting pay equity, protecting teachers from caprious administrators and to encouraging advanced degrees. You then claim the single salary schedule has outlived its usefulness. Aren’t these issues still important today?

Nancy Flanagan:
I have spent 31+ years in the classroom. When I began, in the early 70s, many of my colleagues were veterans of the battles, in the 50s and 60s, to establish collective bargaining. I heard plenty of stories about the good old boys at the HS making more than the elementary teachers (who taught 7 subjects and also did bus, cafeteria and playground duty). Gender equity and time equity, while adequately addressed in bargained agreements, still loomed large in the memories of some teachers.

Reflecting the times, those issues have faded. Bargained agreements have not protected us well against capricious administrators, who find ways to reward certain teachers and behaviors. And--in the 50s, paying teachers for completing a B.A. was an important goal in professionalizing teaching. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence that accumulating lots of additional graduate credits is no guarantee of teaching effectiveness. Once again, the issues reflect the times.

Today, single salary schedules reward teachers for staying put and taking courses, but there are new goals for improving teaching and learning. In fact, the two models we found most interesting in writing our report were association-bargained: Minneapolis and Denver. Novice teachers in the 21st century have new and different expectations for their teaching careers, as well. Having to stick around for 20 years before they make a sustainable salary doesn’t encourage our best and brightest to remain in the classroom.

Isn’t the NEA investigating new performance-pay models?

Question from D R Harris, Library Media, Wake County, NC:
As an NBCT in NC, I benefit from the salary legislation afforded NBCTs in our state. While many NBCTs view their accomplishment as another step towards professional improvement and increased student achievement, others are thankful for the 12% salary differential and do not go beyond the portfolio and assessment. How do you propose to measure the impact of advanced certification and degrees and to reward teachers who achieve such?

Nancy Flanagan:
We are all for NBCTs receiving a salary bonus--it’s a “scientific” way to measure skills and knowledge. For some teachers, pursuing NB Certification is just another salary boost, but you have to remember the tens of thousands of NBCTs who sat for certification as a personal goal, with no salary incentive in sight.

Anthony Rebora, (Moderator):
That’s all the time we have left. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions--we received a lot of really excellent questions for this chat. We’re sorry if we couldn’t get to yours. I also want to thank our guests, Lori Nazareno and Nancy Flanagan, for taking time out to discuss TeacherSolutions’ ideas. This is obviously a very important topic for teaching profession right now. A complete transcript of the chat will be available shortly on and I hope its a valuable resource for you.

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