Teaching Profession

TNTP Presses for Performance-Pay Systems for Teachers

By Anthony Rebora — July 18, 2014 3 min read
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To bolster teacher quality, schools systems desperately need to institute variable pay structures that reward educators based on performance and challenging assignments, according to a report released this week by TNTP, a prominent nonprofit teacher-recruitment and policy organization.

Citing U.S. Department of Education data, the report says that nearly 90 percent of school systems currently use so-called “steps and lanes” compensation systems under which teachers’ salary increases are determined largely on the basis of years of experience and advanced degrees obtained. Such “lockstep” pay systems, according to the report, deter ambitious young people from entering teaching and drive top-performing educators into other professions due to lack of earning potential.

To illustrate the predicament, the report offers a comparison of the expected salary growth of a biology teacher to that of a biologist:

“In [the teaching] profession, great work isn’t valued,” the authors charge. “You couldn’t design a policy more indifferent to excellence if you tried.”

As an alternative approach, TNTP recommends that school systems design compensation plans around three central planks: making early-career teacher salaries competitive with those of other professional jobs in the area; basing salary increases on classroom performance; and creating incentives for teaching in high-needs schools. By acting on these three principles, the report says, schools can “start recruiting and retaining great teachers because—not in spite of—salaries they offer.” Such systems, the report says, have showed promising results in reform districts like the District of Columbia and Newark, N.J.

The report doesn’t specify exactly how teachers’ level of classroom performance should be determined, but it emphasizes the role of “rigorous” evaluation systems—an issue TNTP has championed since its influential 2009 “Widget Effect” report on schools’ inability (or unwillingness) to indentify differences in teachers’ effectiveness. A number of the school systems highlighted in the new report for using innovative pay strategies have implemented evaluation programs that incorporate teachers’ statistically measured impact on students’ test scores. But overreliance on that approach has become increasingly controversial, both among teachers and academic researchers.

The report argues that, even though the compensation systems it envisions would significantly increase the salaries of some teachers, they would in effect pay for themselves by eliminating or reducing yearly salary increases to ineffective teachers and automatic raises provided to master’s degree recipients. However, it’s worth noting that both the District of Columbia and Newark at least initially had considerable funding from private foundations to finance their implementation of performance-based compensation program.

Teachers themselves, on the whole, have expressed skepticism about performance-pay initiatives. In a 2012 survey of more than 10,000 teachers conducted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Scholastic, only 16 percent of respondents said that peformance pay would help retain effective teachers, while only 26 percent said that it would make a strong or very strong impact on student achievement. In conversations with the survey researchers, teachers said they didn’t feel confident that current evaluation systems could accurately gauge their effectiveness and so were doubtul that performance pay could be “meaningfully implemented.”

In the ongoing debates about performance pay, educators have also expressed concern that performance-pay plans could be detrimental to schools’ cohesion and sense of collective effort by pitting teachers against each other for pay increases.

In a blog post related to the TNTP report, teacher Peter Greene of Curmudgucation disputes (among other things) the group’s contention (in its own blog post) that performance pay isn’t necessarily a “zero-sum game” for schools. “Of course performance-based pay is a zero-sum game,” he writes. “School districts do not make more money when they do well. The pie is fixed by the tax rate. Performance-based pay means we must all get out the knives, either for the pie or each other.”

Source for chart image: TNTP, “Shortchanged: The Hidden Costs of Lockstep Teacher Pay”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.