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Why Performance-Based Pay for Teachers Makes Sense

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Up until now, I have stayed away from hot-bed political conversations but I am now right in the middle of one: Performance-based pay for teachers. I am currently managing a grant to implement performance-based compensation systems in ten charter schools and the fun is only beginning.

When I was a teacher, terms like career ladder, merit pay, and performance-based compensation were prevalent and I was intrigued about how teachers could be paid differently. It always bothered me that all teachers got the same pay, but didn't all do the same level of work. This seemed to be the immutable law and if a teacher wanted more money, they either stayed in the district for as many years as they could endure, or they applied to another district with a higher pay scale.

Later I discovered that this law was not so firm as I originally believed. When math, science, or ESL teachers were in short supply, all of a sudden, they were offered signing bonuses, language differentials, and hard-to-staff-position stipends.

To me, this opened the door to the idea that some teachers are more important than others, at least to the hiring officials. Conversations about career ladders, or master teacher positions popped up and then disappeared just as fast. But in my heart of hearts, I always felt teachers deserved to be paid according to their efforts.

A Value-Added Score

I have heard all of the arguments against performance-based compensation: creation of rivalry and competition, bad feelings and envy, strife and hostility are all predictions of what comes out of performance-based compensation plans. I know of several school districts in Texas that refused to participate in the state sponsored performance-based pay plans because they wanted to avoid the predicted negative consequences and didn't want the hassle, or didn't think they could design a system that is fair.

My feeling was that it is money for the teachers and the classified staff, why not let them have it? I figured the hassle of designing a system that approaches fairness was worth it if it put more money in teachers' pockets.

The lack of fairness was always brought up as an excuse. What about the teachers who teach the gifted kids, or worse, the ones that get the stupid kids (yes, I said it), or a teacher who inherits kids from poor communities, bad teachers or bad schools the previous year? Nobody could answer those questions until we looked at business and borrowed from them the concept "value-added."

In the last few years, state governments have been experimenting with performance-based compensation plans. A few have incorporated the concept of value-added education which means that the teacher measures the level of the students knowledge and skills at the beginning of the year, then at the end of the year, and the difference, hopefully positive, is what "value" that teacher added to those students. Now we have something that is fair.

So I ask, what is the complaint about performance-based pay system?

As a last resort response I always got, "I didn't become a teacher because of the money. I am a teacher because of the kids. If I wanted the money, I would have become a doctor or lawyer." Aside from being stereotypical, this answer always bothered me. Why not work for free then? Why worry about striking for fringe benefits and increased salary? Of course it is about money! Every teacher could use the money.

It wasn't until recently that I understood that the real concern about performance-based pay was not about the money at all. It is about performance of the teacher. Performance is shown when each individual student's progress is connected directly to his or her particular teacher or set of teachers. Based on how much the student learned, as demonstrated by the pre- and post- tests, a teacher will be assigned a value-added score. Teachers won't be able to blame the prior school-year teacher, nor the parents, nor society as some have done. If the score is low, it is either the kids are stupid, or the teacher is ineffective. We know that kids are not stupid, so...

How can a union protect a teacher from remediation, sanctions, or dismissal if the data shows clearly that the teacher is ineffective with the current students? It can't. And the traditional role of the union will have to change if it is to exist, just as the traditional role of the teacher must change.

What are your thoughts regarding performance-based compensation for teachers? I look forward to your comments.

For the counterpoint to this blog, check Gaetan Pappalardo's blog Elementary Educator Asks: Does Merit Pay Turn Kids into Zombies?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (65)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kim Bredeson Quiles's picture

I agree with most of my colleagues' prior comments. First and foremost, Education should NOT be regarded as a business!!!! We are dealing with human, animated, beings, not inanimate objects. Therefore, human beings are affected by many, many, influences that teachers cannot control.
The writer assumes that all kids get what they need at home, such as: enough sleep, enough to eat, enough medical attention, that all kids have a home, and that none of the kids will suffer from test anxieties. As previously mentioned, kids are affected by all of this stuff and this then, affects their test scores.
Next, as regards "Value Added" model, again, there is the assumption that all states and school districts have those pre and post test ready to go. Not true! Our state would sink millions of dollars into developing those tests and then would decide that, like a previous poster's state, they really didn't accurately measure the improvements.
When did striking for a living wage and benefits = "of course its about the money!"? Even when teachers don't get the pay they deserve, they are still in the classrooms every day doing what's best for kids!!!
Finally, woah!!! "low test scores = kids are stupid or the teacher is ineffective."? For real? Because ONLY what I teach them in the classroom will determine whether or not their test scores improve? I am also sure the writer just sent about a million "NCLB" supporters to their stroke out point insinuating that there are kids too stupid to pass "the test".
There's a huge gap between theory and practice, between utopia and reality. I suggest the writer get a dose of reality.

Kim Bredeson Quiles's picture

Ever heard of a district superintendent's salary being based on yearly test results? The administrators mandate = the teachers hop to, with or without the resources = student failure = "its all those damned teachers' fault!!!" Hmmmm.....

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Thanks, I get what you are saying.

I look at performance bonus pay as just that: a reward for hard work. It is above and beyond the regular salary and if you as a teacher are fine with your salary, don't do anything extra at all. However, if you are driven to help your students, doing whatever it takes, then you should be rewarded for your efforts.

Have a wonderful holiday!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Thanks for your thought-provoking post. I once taught at an expensive private school. Seven kids out of 200 Grade 7 students seemed to stall in their learning. Funnily enough, all seven families were experiencing significant disruptions that same year. How do you factor that into performance pay?[/quote]

Similarly, my 5th grade colleagues have decided to departmentalize our instruction to avoid succumbing to the curricular demands of every subject. This has allowed us create flexible groupings of students according to student performance level by subject. Results are as expected: High level students are going above and beyond. Students with challenges are moving slower or not all (that's not to say never). So should we get paid for the group that made progress and lose pay for students that did not? Same teachers, differentiated techniques to accommodate the students, different results...now what?[/quote]

Ann Hyde's picture
Ann Hyde
Special Ed English teacher, Anchorage, Alaska

I've been following all of the posts, and would like to add my two cents again. Unless and until teachers can control more of the variables which would go into performance-based pay, this is moot. I am a special ed teacher, and by definition, my students learn slower or differently than general ed students. Does that mean I am a worse teacher? I do enjoy my paycheck, but am at school for far more hours than I get paid. I also provide supplies for kids who don't have them because I believe a student should be able to work even if they forget a pencil or paper. No excuses.

However, if my paycheck depends on the kind of students I get, or the area of town they are from, then I want the freedom to choose which kids I get or to get out of special ed. Right now, I wouldn't change my job for those reasons, but I do know that there are colleagues who would.

I would like to suggest we look at the amount of time students spend in the classroom vs other activities. If kids paid as much time and attention to school as they do to video games, they might make more academic progress. How about bringing in community volunteers to work with kids as academic coaches in areas of career interest?

Lastly, some of the posts have gotten somewhat snarky. I am doing my research and doing my best to bring my A game to all of my kids each and every day. Dissention amongst my peers, or between teachers and admin just distracts all of us, and divides us at a time when we should be demanding excellence from our students and our fellow teachers. Not everything is about money.

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

Ann -

I have jumped into this discussion a few times myself. My thinking is very compatible with your: I am suggesting that ALL interested people, teachers for sure, come together to find the best solution to assessment of teacher effectiveness - followed by implementation planning, implementation, assessment of the solution all along the way, and refinement as appropriate. We all had teachers we'd agree were ineffective; so not all teachers are great. With everyone dedicated to that third alternative as Stephen Covey labelled it (better than any of the initial options championed at the start of the process), the process will work. BUT it does require everyone to accept that this as yet unknown third alternative does exist!

Once the teacher effectiveness is assessed appropriately, then I would argue the poorer ones should be offered help to improve. But lots of other efforts become possible - including promoting best practices broadly and, yes even rewards to the good ones (though this will not spur motivation for anyone).

We've got to get away from this going to the matresses for our favorite (or refusing to engage like a spoiled brat) or pointing fingers. Unfortunately, I believe, teacher effectiveness assessment will happen. It's everyone's choice whether one complains about the lack of a good procedure or one works with others to find the best procedure!

Remember: an effective procedure provides insight to everyone assessed into what she / he can work on to improve; everyone can always improve. That's what all teachers strive (or should at least) for, isn't it?

Ray Dorso's picture
Ray Dorso
Director of Special Services, New Milford School District

Carrots and Sticks Don't Work! At least not for teachers. In Daniel Pink's book "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us", he reviews a significant amount of research and concludes that what motivates us is the following: Autonomy; Mastery; and Purpose. A great book that speaks strongly against the damaging premise of performance based pay for educators.

Check out this link for a quick animated video clip about the book:


RSA Animate - Drive

Julie W.'s picture
Julie W.
Elementary Principal

Many well-formulated, thoughtful, and passionate posts on this topic.

This subject is taking on a very personal feel in Florida currently, as our new governor and his transition team are proposing sweeping, performance-based pay for professional educators in our state. Their proposal, unlike the one Ben suggests here, would require 50% of the professionals' pay be based on student performance. Yes, I said 50%.

In my opinion, there are many, many things flawed with this philosophy and its potential ramifications, and I will not enumerate them here (even in a concise version, I could potentially exceed space limitations of Edutopia). However, one similarity in this current reality in Florida and many of the other performance-based systems that are often advocated is the cart-before-the-horse format. Someone or some group believes measurement & financial consequences (cart) will result in positive changes in student achievement, but a proven, reliable, equitable, and accurate system has not yet been developed (horse).

"Building the plane as it is being flown" seems to be getting "done unto" education with increasing frequency, particularly by those in policy making positions. Our country's current economic circumstances would seem to indicate that this has possibly been the model applied to business decisions as of late, and its success is certainly questionable.

IF (imagine that word typed in heavy, italics, & bold font, with underlining) any version of a performance-based system is to be considered for implementation in any school, district, or state, I truly believe the "horse," i.e. measurement systems that meet rigorous tests of reliability and equity, should be stable and established before the "cart" of financial incentives is implemented. Otherwise, the cart's wheels will fall off or hit pot holes & too many students and educators will suffer at the expense of pitiful planning, just so some leader can claim "education reform".

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

Everyone gives lip service to "accountabiity" how can we not? How can we be against Mom and apple pie?

The education crisis consists principally of education doing what it does best, ie doing what is required of it by society. Accountability is merely the latest "common sense" solution.



Bruce Baker is a professor at Rutgers and one of the authors of Financing Education Systems, a graduate level textbook. His comments attack some basic assumptions of "accountability" as a political idea.

Pasquale DeVitto's picture

Umm...Just curious- how will the teacher/student relationship be measured with both validity and reliablity?

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

:: Merit Pay Found to Have Little Effect on Achievement

:: Merit Pay: A Perspective From the Classroom

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