Teaching Profession

New Thoughts on Performance Pay

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 16, 2008 2 min read
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I went to a roundtable discussion last week on performance-pay programs hosted by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. In attendance were representatives from a variety of programs, including several of the Teacher Incentive Fund grants.

The attendees brought up a number of interesting challenges they face as they implement their programs. I’ve listed several of the key themes below.

1. Transitions. Mark Bounds, the teacher-quality leader for South Carolina, noted that a new pay structure can be hard to swallow for teachers who have put in 20 or 30 years under an old system. The systems must allow for some type of transition, he contended. “It’s important to honor the existing salary schedule,” said Bounds."We can’t change the world in a day.”

2. Sustainability. Carla Stevens, Houston’s assistant superintendent for research and accountability, suggested teachers aren’t likely to buy into a program that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be around all that long. “People [will] say, “This is another flash-in-the-pan thing; why shouId I pay attention,’ ” Stevens said. A case in point: Several Washington Teachers Union officials expressed that about the D.C. plan Chancellor Michelle Rhee is promoting. The system, which would provide up to $20,000 in bonuses to teachers, would hinge at least initially on private-foundation grants. WTU members are wondering what would happen to the program if the private funds are exhausted.

3. Costs. Performance-pay systems can be really expensive, especially when layered on top of existing salary structures. Maybe too expensive? It’s one concern for Dan Weisberg. “It may be a bridge too far to redo the step-and lanes [salary-schedule] system, but it’s too expensive to build [performance-pay] on top of a lock-step salary schedule,” opined Weisberg, the chief executive for human capital for New York City, which has a new schoolwide bonus system. “If you don’t crack that issue, I’m not sure how you reward those doing a great job now [and] signal to those coming out of college that this is a profession you want them to go into,” he said.

Spellings, in an interview I had with her after the roundtable, also brought up this issue. “I think, as painful as it might be in times of scare resources, we’re kidding ourselves if we think there’s unlimited resources to have all these things piled on top of each other,” she said. “I think it’s a serious policy question.”

So what does this all come down to? Several attendees said these questions raise the need for research, research, research on these programs. And it seems logical to assume that everything from bonus amount, design of professional development, and changes to the pay structure could all affect these programs’ ability to change recruitment, retention, and student-achievement rates.

Unfortunately, while the TIF grants are seeding some really interesting programs, some observers aren’t sure they’re going to be great for solving the research question. Only three of the 34 TIF grants are employing a randomized or quasi-experimental design to evaluate their programs that allow for researchers to draw cause-and-effect conclusions about the programs.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.