Opinion
Teaching Profession Commentary

The Trouble With Pay for Performance

By Gerald Tirozzi, Marian Hermie & Wayne Schmidt — April 12, 2012 5 min read

Virtually everyone agrees that educators should be held accountable for student achievement, and pay for performance is often suggested as a method for rewarding those teachers whose students demonstrate adequate yearly progress, or AYP. The question is how to adequately and fairly evaluate a teacher’s performance relative to how it affects student achievement, and then to determine how to compensate those teachers whose students demonstrate AYP or beyond.

There is a dearth of research that supports paying teachers beyond their base salaries to improve student achievement, but there is a broad body of research that indicates that pay for performance might actually do damage as teachers feel a threat to their livelihoods because of this narrow method of measuring their efficacy. Pay for performance has been documented as compromising the good will and cooperation among teachers since it creates competition for a small amount of money, which can result in an “I’m out for myself only” attitude. Such a tone can hurt the necessary collaboration and communication found to nurture student achievement and success.

Further, what if students see no reason to perform well since their classroom grades do not reflect their individual performance on such assessments? The National Center on Performance Incentives, created during President George W. Bush’s administration, found no conclusive evidence on the power of financial awards in promoting more effective teaching and evaluating student performance, or on the long-term effect of performance awards on the supply of effective teachers.

Studies of performance pay in New York City and Chicago, as well as research conducted in Tennessee by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University, in partnership with the RAND Corp., have echoed the findings.

As an example, let’s look at the Vanderbilt-National Center on Performance Incentives study, which took place over the 2006-07 to 2008-09 school years with volunteer participation by math teachers in grades 5-8 in the Nashville public schools. In the absence of any other incentive programs over the three-year life of the program, teachers were rewarded with bonus pay tied to student performance. The study’s central question was: “If teachers know they will be rewarded for an increase in their students’ test scores, will their student test scores increase?” Researchers found that the answer to that question is no—bonuses alone do not help teachers work harder to see their students’ scores rise.

To dangle the carrot of pay for performance in front of a group that already feels disenfranchised because of inadequate compensation and the lack of professional development seems counterproductive."

Additionally, there has been growing concern about possible cheating by teachers to ensure that their students’ test scores increase. Underscoring the seriousness of the problem, the U.S. Department of Education intends to publish a guide explaining what to look for regarding cheating in test results. Wouldn’t the funding to create and publish such a guide be better spent on professional development that would equip teachers with a deeper repertoire for teaching the students of the 21st century?

What can be done to improve teacher effectiveness and student achievement?

1. Develop a multidimensional evaluation system for teachers that incorporates the many and varied components essential to accomplished teaching.

2. Fund a major initiative to maximize the use of the nearly 100,000 teachers nationwide who have been certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and whose expertise could be utilized in roles such as: mentors for new teachers, professional-development specialists, curriculum developers, and master-teachers supporting veteran classroom teachers. This select group of teachers represents a great and largely overlooked resource.

3. Provide significant financial resources to promote high-quality, ongoing, and comprehensive professional development for all teachers. A commitment of this kind would provide a greater national reward that would potentially affect all teachers, rather than a select few who would be rewarded under a pay-for-performance model.

Sadly, our three-point plan is not the main topic of conversation in areas where educators are often compared with the business community, particularly in terms of pay for performance. Corporate leaders insist that educators should be paid for results, just as they are. Yet business-management literature is filled with warnings about incentives that rely heavily on quantitative rather than qualitative measures. Contrary to the rhetoric from businesses, it seems that they themselves actually heed the warnings. A May 2009 Economic Policy Institute report estimates that only one in seven private-sector employees is covered by a bonus or merit plan, which accounts for just a small fraction of total compensation.

In review, business literature assails performance pay, and corporate America uses it sparingly. So, why should education adopt performance pay as a centerpiece of reform? This is dizzying logic, but at least we have some insight into the process that doled out obscene bonuses to the executives who lost billions of dollars and brought our national economy to the brink of disaster.

This is not to say that a viable and valuable method of paying teachers for what they know and can do to raise student achievement is not possible. But to dangle the carrot of pay for performance in front of a group that already feels disenfranchised because of inadequate compensation and the lack of professional development seems counterproductive.

Rather, what if we considered creating a system in which all stakeholders collaborate in the development of college training programs, performance-appraisal processes, and instruments to create ownership and commitment to effect performance appraisal focused on improved student learning?

The process should begin with teacher training in colleges and universities and carry through to a teacher’s last day of service. Through professional development, coaching, ongoing collaboration with experts in the teaching profession, and training for instructional leaders who commit to implementing an agreed-upon evaluation system with fidelity, states would be able to invest funding for education in a system that not only raises student achievement, but also attracts the best and brightest to the teaching profession.

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