Assessment Opinion

Purpose and Performance in Teacher Performance Pay

By Donald B. Gratz — March 09, 2009 6 min read
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Performance pay for teachers is a hot topic in education policy these days. President Barack Obama supported it during his campaign, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tried it during his tenure as Chicago’s schools chief. Already in practice or discussion in some states and many school districts, teacher performance pay is not a future possibility, it’s here now.

The underlying assumptions of test-based performance pay, the most commonly proposed approach, are troubling. To believe that teachers will try harder if offered a financial incentive is to assume that they aren’t trying hard now, that they know what to do but simply aren’t doing it, and that they are motivated more by money than by their students’ needs. These are unlikely and unsupported conclusions, which teachers find insulting rather than motivating.

But there is an even more fundamental assumption, based on a question too rarely asked: How should we define teacher performance?

Performance-based compensation in any organization requires a definition of performance related to the organization’s purpose. Before implementing a performance-pay system, the organization or school district needs to determine what goals it wants to accomplish and how employees can contribute to those goals. If teacher performance is based on student performance, the latter must also be defined. Is student performance fully assessed through standardized-test scores, as the federal No Child Left Behind Act presumes, or do we want more for students? Until we can fully define both teacher and student performance, performance pay may support some goals but undermine others.

My own research and observation suggest that test-based measures of teacher performance are nearly impossible to implement broadly, given the differences among schools, teachers, and students. But the more important question is whether achievement on standardized tests is really the sole purpose of school. Do we know that students are “doing better” in any broad sense if they score higher on a state test? Do measures of academic achievement—even multiple measures—truly indicate whether students have the skills, knowledge, and disposition to succeed as citizens, workers, or members of families and communities?

Many districts still list such goals as “creating lifelong learners,” “providing students with the skills they need to succeed,” and “helping each child discover his or her talents and abilities” along with their academic goals. Others include critical thinking and students’ healthy social, emotional, and physical growth as core purposes. These used to be common goals—are they still important in the 21st century?

On these questions, I offer the following thoughts:

First, the idea of schools focused solely on academic skills is relatively new. Jefferson, Emerson, Dewey, and many other leading American thinkers have proposed teaching students the basic skills and habits of mind to succeed as citizens and make their way in the world. But they favored teaching foundational skills first, then allowing students to pursue different paths with those skills, based on both interest and ability.

In 1782, for example, Thomas Jefferson proposed a tiered system of basic education for Virginia “to provide an education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness.” Individual freedom and happiness are not often stated as goals of education in today’s public-policy pronouncements. Perhaps they should be.

Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed that “the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret.” Teach a child basic skills, Jefferson and Emerson believed, and he will use those skills to pursue his own life goals.

John Dewey promoted child-centered schools. These were not indulgent organizations that let children get their way, but planned learning environments that engaged students in learning through doing, as Emerson suggested, and gave them the tools to succeed in different occupations.

Similar goals were commonly expressed through the 19th century and into the 20th, but were overwhelmed by massive immigration into this country, which caused public officials to develop institutions—police and fire departments, hospitals, and schools among them—to transmit “American values” and preserve the public order.

Most school districts continue to include both basic skills and individual student growth among their goals. But today, for the first time, federal policy has proclaimed one primary purpose for all schools—academic achievement as measured by standardized tests—with the implication that high test scores will protect the nation, grow the economy, and assure our future. This approach, popular in the press but less so among citizens, respects differences in students’ learning styles but not in their interests, talents, or aspirations.

Another concern most citizens share is economic success: Students should be taught “the skills of the 21st century.” What are those skills? One answer comes from the Conference Board, which, with three other organizations, surveyed more than 400 corporate leaders about the skills workers will need in the future. The resulting 2006 report, “Are They Really Ready to Work?,” supports core academic skills, but notes that applied skills generally “trump basic knowledge and [academic] skills.” The four areas of skill most sought are these: professionalism and work ethic; oral and written communications; teamwork and collaboration; and critical thinking and problem-solving.

How might these goals shape our definition of student and teacher performance?

Students and parents want their children to be happy and successful, but define these in different ways for their children, who themselves have different talents, interests, and abilities. In a letter to his daughters, President Obama recently said he seeks “every opportunity for happiness and fulfillment” for them and other children. The private school they attend will doubtless encourage fulfillment, which generally requires identifying and pursing talents and interests. Should public schools pursue similar goals? Should they teach a common body of knowledge through high school? Or should they focus on core academics while helping students develop the personal skills to become productive workers and engaged citizens? Can a balance be struck between the two?

In 2005, Richard Rothstein and Rebecca Jacobsen asked a cross section of adults to rank the importance of the following skill areas and averaged the results. Suppose we measured student success according to the weight these citizens assigned to each topic. The resulting assessment would be:

Basic Academic Skills—22 percent;

Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving—18 percent;

Social Skills and Work Ethic—12 percent;

Citizenship and Community Responsibility—11 percent;

Preparation for Skilled Work—10 percent;

Physical Health—9 percent;

Emotional Health—9 percent;

The Arts and Literature—9 percent.

Now suppose we reallocated classroom time, and definitions of student and teacher performance, around this new approach. Student success, teacher performance, and performance pay would take on a very different look.

Different districts will arrive at different goals, but surveys suggest that the summary above is closer to a consensus than the current, test-based approach. So here’s a radical idea: As we move down the road toward more experiments with performance pay, and as we consider reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, how about defining student and teacher performance based on what parents and citizens actually want for their children—all of the goals, not just one. That would be real reform.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Purpose and Performance in Teacher Performance Pay


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