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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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
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