Teaching Profession Commentary

Truly Paying for Performance

By Catherine Awsumb Nelson & Richard Wertheimer — July 08, 2010 6 min read

Pay for performance. Merit pay. Incentive compensation. Linking teacher pay to classroom effectiveness is a central premise in both current federal school reform strategy and in the recent education investments of major national foundations. Given that education is such a labor-intensive process—more than 75 percent of the average district’s budget goes to compensation—the idea of tying those dollars more tightly to the core mission is appealing.

Current teacher-compensation systems make no attempt to incentivize quality. Most educators would concede what research bears out: that the years of experience and educational credentials rewarded by lock-step salary scales are poor proxies for teacher effectiveness. Yet most of the new compensation plans now being discussed skip over performance and proceed directly to outcomes. In doing so, they do no better than the status quo at promoting quality teaching. What is described as paying for teacher performance is really paying for student outcomes, which in practice means paying for standardized-test-score gains, a very limited, perhaps even counterproductive, focus for incentives.

Standardized tests are a narrow measure of the educational goals our society and school systems hold for students. The No Child Left Behind years have provided ample evidence that focusing on a small slice of easily testable subjects and skills introduces damaging distortions into the system and impoverishes our definition of a “good education.” The practice of paying teachers based on students’ test-score gains rests on a false sense of precision about what those outcomes measure and how they are related to what teachers do in the classroom. Although such plans are often justified with references to best practices in the corporate world, in fact few private-sector employees—with the exception of salespeople—are paid primarily based on an objective measure of outcomes. Instead, most compensation systems recognize that outcomes are multifaceted and their relationship to work processes complex. Powerful compensation systems therefore necessarily incorporate a good deal of expert professional judgment about quality performance.

The practice of paying teachers based on students’ test-score gains rests on a false sense of precision about what those outcomes measure and how they are related to what teachers do in the classroom.

In contrast to paying for test-score gains, focusing teacher compensation directly on the quality of teaching creates powerful positive incentives. Unlike test scores, which contain no underlying vision of effective teaching and do nothing to help teachers learn and improve, focusing on the craft of teaching forces districts and schools to articulate, support, and measure quality teaching. And like “quality” initiatives in the private sector, such practices vest more control over defining and monitoring quality in the frontline workers, in this case teachers.

Our eight-year experience with a teacher-compensation plan focused squarely on teacher quality in the classroom is a case in point. Although it represents the experience of just a single school, we hope some of the lessons we have learned will be useful to others and help reframe the debate about teacher effectiveness and how best to incentivize it.

At City High, a successful charter high school in Pittsburgh, we set out to design a compensation system that retains a broad vision of educational quality, and directly encourages and rewards the kinds of teacher behavior we want to incentivize. We use a competency-based compensation and promotion system employing four levels of teaching proficiency: apprentice, journeyman, expert, and master. Substantial salary increases occur between levels. Moving from one level to another is based on demonstrated quality, not time in the classroom.

Teachers seeking promotion submit a portfolio of evidence, which is assessed by the school leadership team (administrators and master teachers) using a rubric that includes 15 core teaching components. There are also additional components for those seeking “expert” or “master” status.

Evidence can include written reflections, data analysis, student work, lesson plans, videos, records of formal observations, and at least two “case studies” of how the teacher’s work with an individual student has demonstrated targeted competencies and advanced that student’s learning. Master teachers and other colleagues often provide crucial support as candidates develop their portfolios, through informal observations, reviews of accumulated pieces of evidence, and reflections. Teachers report that going through the promotion process is a powerful learning experience and a source of tremendous professional validation.

The school has invested enormous time in developing and refining the rubric, to reflect as precisely and concretely as possible its vision of effective teaching. The rubric thus serves as the core curriculum for the school’s professional development. Teachers report that this standards-based approach allows them to experiment more deliberately with their practice, reflecting and adjusting as they seek to reach clear targets. It also provides a framework of common language enabling colleagues to share their ideas and work on their practice.

Such concrete, ongoing discussions of effective teaching are a powerful form of professional development. At City High, we have found that they have the additional benefit of creating incentives to make teaching practice more public, encouraging the development of a professional learning community. A system that defines and rewards effective teaching provides specific, actionable feedback on where teachers are not yet proficient and how to get there. And rather than being a snapshot in time, evaluation is an ongoing process.

Compensation linked directly to classroom practice can address the career-path issue by giving teachers a clear definition of what it means to continue to develop as a professional educator.

Compensation linked directly to classroom practice can also address the career-path issue by giving teachers a clear definition of what it means to continue to develop as a professional educator. One of the frustrations of the profession is that the responsibilities of a classroom teacher are substantially the same in year one as in year 35. By articulating what advanced teaching competencies and extended levels of development mean, this form of performance pay creates a pathway and an expectation for continuous learning. The definition of advanced competency in the City High rubric, for example, emphasizes that teachers should take a creative, proactive, and leadership role, going beyond the basics of good practice.

Among the many criticisms of compensation systems that rely on expert judgment, two related concerns stand out: subjectivity and the skill levels of those conducting observations and evaluating evidence. The experience of City High suggests that these potential problems can be mitigated by focusing standards of evidence on observable behavior, holding accountable the principal in his or her role as instructional leader, and including master teachers on the evaluation team.

True pay for performance creates incentives for professionalism, lifelong learning, and ownership of school and district goals. It inculcates a “culture of performance” in which a large majority of staff members believe that there is a definable difference between better and worse teaching, that it can be broken down and measured objectively, and that better teaching deserves to be rewarded. Most important, doing so can boost, rather than undercut, high-quality learning for students. We believe this is a far more substantive and educationally productive definition of teacher accountability than one based on standardized-test-score gains.

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2017 edition of Education Week


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