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

Joe:

If you follow trends, you realize that students are different each year and the problems they bring to school are only going to get bigger. The only way to adjust to those differences is to be willing and able to adjust. The professional learning community model is the best and brightest hope for innovative educators like yourself.

A couple of things have to change along with eliminating teacher isolation through PLCs.

1) We have to get it out of our heads that teachers are the important things about school. It is the student that does the learning, regardless and sometimes in spite of the teacher. Just because we stand in front of the classroom and talk, doesn't mean students are learning. Teachers have an obligation to change the attitude that they are going to make students learn-- rather, they need to develop ways to help students shoulder the burden of learning. This cannot start in high school, where student have had up to 8 years of "shut up and listen to the teacher".

2) teachers need to be able to show students are learning every day and should not be afraid of scrutiny. If a teacher can show concretely that his students are learning above and beyond what is expected of them, that teacher should be rewarded. That is what performance based pay is all about. "Good job and keep it up!" is the message.

Thanks for the comments

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I do believe what you say, and I agree with your statement that kids are not stupid, but what about those that choose to be. Cameron's post above strikes a chord especially in these current times when school work is not a concern. What about those parents who don't support the teachers, don't care of their kids do the work and don't care if their kids fail? What failsafe is in place to assist teachers in a merit-pay situation that face these challenges.

Your major point also relies on the assumption that the best teachers produce the best students. Is this ALWAYS true?

This brings up my point: At what time do the schools start to change? I am an innovator and risk-taker in the classroom, but that can only go so far in a system that has remained the same for hundreds of years. We are pushed to differentiate instruction. When are we going to differentiate the assessment of BOTH the teachers and the students?[/quote]

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

Darrel and Andrew:

You brought up Value-added testing as a negative. How is knowing where your students are to begin with a negative? How is comparing how far they have come in your class a negative?

We have contracted with a company called Battelle for Kids http://www.battelleforkids.org/ and they will be gathering three years of student performance data from each student. From that data, each student will get a projected performance target. Then progress will be measured against that very individualize projected performance measure.

Additionally, each teacher will be linked to the student proportionately to how much time they spend with the student and their role.

I don't see how anything could be more fair both for the student as well as for the teacher.

Of course, the teachers will also receive support and job embedded staff development in their professional learning communities as well as a fair, formative observation and evaluation process that includes at least three formal observations from three different people.

Then as if that was not enough, teachers who are star performers will be rewarded for their evidence based performance as professionals should be. I would like to see the system you want to maintain provide those kinds of tools and benefits for teachers and students.

Value- added is here to stay thanks to NCLB.

Thanks for your comments.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I don't think educators have a problem because they are afraid of being assessed. They are afraid of being assessed unfairly. There are statistical issues with the value-added method that your post doesn't mention, as discussed and shown here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uONqxysWEk8For example: VA approaches assume that gains at all levels are equivalent, as if on a linear scale. This is clearly not the case; students already at the upper end are often already better learners and can move further ahead (often with less coaching and in a shorter period of time). My wife is teaching a number of classes with delayed readers: fifth- and sixth-graders who read at a kindergarten-level (we live in a high-poverty area). You'd think a VA approach would be excellent for her: wow, the progress those kids can make! The money! But, reality-check. One of the kids told her that her grand-pappy didn't know how to read, so he saw no reason to learn. He plans to take over his grand-dad's concrete business when he's older. The students at the low end of the scale present problems for progress that are not present in the middle- and upper- ends. The schools have them for only 6 hours a day, after all.

I would not be surprised to find a state that employed a VA measure for pay would soon find that yet again, the rich school districts had better results, and the poorer districts had poorer results. A more sophisticated method of rewarding the economic structure already in place.

Also, the social context of the classroom itself is a problem for the VA approach. A bully or a child with undiagnosed ADHD (stupid, I guess?) will be an overall drain of the educator's attention.

In any case, the VA approach relies on creativity-squashing standardized testing. The most important skills any teacher can teach include creative thinking, team work skills, self-regulation and self-control, and handling negative emotions when the going gets tough. Is there a test for those things yet?[/quote]

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

Andrew:

Thanks for your comments.

I stated in the article that the controversy is not about the money. Teachers are wealthy enough that they do not have to worry about things like that (LOL). I was a teacher in three states, none of which I feel, paid teachers what they needed to be paid. But your argument has holes in it too. Already the public does not feel that teachers are doing their job. Business is against schools because they spend billions training their employees to do things they should have learned in schools. Community colleges and universities are a joke because they earn most of their money from remediation classes. Try to pass a bond issue to raise teacher salaries? You will see what the public really thinks about teachers. So what is your plan to raise teacher salaries?

My plan is to help teachers to be able to prove that they are effective and reward them when they are. Period. In order to do that we have to test students and observe teachers in a fair and consistent manner. Anyone will tell you that standardized tests are at best a dip-stick measure of student performance. But it is a measure that we can track and one which we can use to guide instruction.

The Performance based pay plan I am trying implement really isn't about the bonus at the end of the year. It is about changing the school isolationism, and teacher attitudes about teaching and learning by getting them to really work together using PLC's the way that DuFour meant them to be used.

Thanks for the comments

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]A couple of things here:

1. You have fallen into the trap of wanting to do something that intuitively might make sense, but science has proven is wrong. Science has shown that using a carrot and stick approach to motivate people is ineffective, and often actually leads to worse performance. I could go into detail, but just look up Herzberg, Maslow, DeCharms, and Self-Determination Theory. That should be plenty to get you started.

2. Value added systems rely on tests--standardized ones. How many awesome standardized tests do you know about? How many of them are accurate and reliable measures of student academic growth? Should a student's social-emotional learning and growth be taken into account? All you're doing is taking the same high stakes system--that has shown to be ineffective--and attaching bonuses to them. Honestly, I think encouraging more teaching to the test should be avoided at all costs. It's bad for kids.

3. Why don't we just pay teachers what they deserve in the first place? I think most of us agree that they don't (at least not in the State of Arizona), yet we are always talking about teachers as the ones who need additional contingencies placed on their performance. You ever heard of a doctor who only gets paid if that particular surgery is successful?

4. Your comment about teachers being in it for the money is insulting, and wrong. A countless number of teachers sacrifice their own economic well-being everyday because of their commitment to kids. A countless number of people (even teachers) willingly donate their time for FREE to help education. Yes, even teachers would like to be able to buy a house someday, have enough money to raise a family, and maybe send their kids to college. When we get to the point where we are actually helping teachers do that, then we can talk about bonuses.[/quote]

Darrell Rudmann's picture
Darrell Rudmann
Educational Psychologist

I don't think educators have a problem because they are afraid of being assessed. They are afraid of being assessed unfairly. There are statistical issues with the value-added method that your post doesn't mention, as discussed and shown here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uONqxysWEk8

For example: VA approaches assume that gains at all levels are equivalent, as if on a linear scale. This is clearly not the case; students already at the upper end are often already better learners and can move further ahead (often with less coaching and in a shorter period of time). My wife is teaching a number of classes with delayed readers: fifth- and sixth-graders who read at a kindergarten-level (we live in a high-poverty area). You'd think a VA approach would be excellent for her: wow, the progress those kids can make! The money! But, reality-check. One of the kids told her that her grand-pappy didn't know how to read, so he saw no reason to learn. He plans to take over his grand-dad's concrete business when he's older. The students at the low end of the scale present problems for progress that are not present in the middle- and upper- ends. The schools have them for only 6 hours a day, after all.

I would not be surprised to find a state that employed a VA measure for pay would soon find that yet again, the rich school districts had better results, and the poorer districts had poorer results. A more sophisticated method of rewarding the economic structure already in place.

Also, the social context of the classroom itself is a problem for the VA approach. A bully or a child with undiagnosed ADHD (stupid, I guess?) will be an overall drain of the educator's attention.

In any case, the VA approach relies on creativity-squashing standardized testing. The most important skills any teacher can teach include creative thinking, team work skills, self-regulation and self-control, and handling negative emotions when the going gets tough. Is there a test for those things yet?

Darrell Rudmann's picture
Darrell Rudmann
Educational Psychologist

Ben, as someone with doctoral-level research training, I'm struck by how your partial list of citations includes Phi Delta Kappan, which advertises itself as a magazine, several non-journal articles, and then several citations from a single journal on that focuses on educational policy.

Are these the best that are out there?

Robert Ryshke's picture
Robert Ryshke
Executive Director of Center for Teaching

I basically agree with your points; however, it is important to engage teachers in a conversation about how we will measure value-added. We have to build a community of trust, which involves collaborating with teachers on the things that matter most. We also have to admit that we don't have great tools in place to measure except test scores. These scores are only one tool. What about the attitudes of students towards the classroom environment. How should we measure that-student course feedback forms for students in grades 5-12. What about peer-to-peer observation and associated feedback? Also, what about encouraging teachers to videotape lessons and then do video reflections as a way to improve instruction and student achievement. My fear is that we will use only test scores as our measure of student progress. We know this is tool is useful but can only go so far.

Thanks for the post!

Bob
Center for Teaching

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

Bob:

The only way to make a performance based pay (bonus) system work is continuing dialogue on the very points you described. No system is going to be perfect for every one. Look at our national constitutional government. But as far as I know, it is the best thing out there for freedom and democracy.

That is how I feel about the performance based pay system I am trying to implement.

1)it rewards those teachers who are willing to do the extra things to improve their own skills and those of the students and

2)it sets up concrete support structures that get the best out of teacher collaboration and job-embedded professional development a la PLC.

Both of these ideas and some would say ideologies, I believe have the potential for saving public education as we know it. Change is imminent and no one will disagree that schools can do better than what they are doing now.

The performance base pay plan we are implementing requires that school restructure of time, personnel and teacher philosophies. Rather than individual teachers being isolated, teachers must work together in PLC-like groups to tackle improving student learning by improving teacher skill and capacity to inspire that learning in students. We will reward teachers who catch the vision and are willing to put aside the "stand up and teach" model and replace it with creative, engaging, learning-rich educational environments where the student bears the burden and excitement of learning, not the teacher.

Thanks for your support and encouragement.

Sincerely,
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I basically agree with your points; however, it is important to engage teachers in a conversation about how we will measure value-added. We have to build a community of trust, which involves collaborating with teachers on the things that matter most. We also have to admit that we don't have great tools in place to measure except test scores. These scores are only one tool. What about the attitudes of students towards the classroom environment. How should we measure that-student course feedback forms for students in grades 5-12. What about peer-to-peer observation and associated feedback? Also, what about encouraging teachers to videotape lessons and then do video reflections as a way to improve instruction and student achievement. My fear is that we will use only test scores as our measure of student progress. We know this is tool is useful but can only go so far.

Thanks for the post!

Bob

Center for Teaching[/quote]

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

Darrell:

Wow, thanks for the quick response.

I see what you are saying. Also thanks for pointing this out. I am studying for a doctorate in Ed Leadership and Curriculum Instruction.

I spent 20 minutes and did an EBSCO search on the words "performance based pay" and these are the results. In the results, only two articles had anything negative to say about performance based pay for teachers and neither were in the past five years. I am fairly confident that if an exhaustive list were created for merit pay, performance incentives etc... many peer reviewed articles to your satisfaction would be found. The content of the references I provided is encouraging for performance based pay and in my humble opinion, worth reading.

I simply provided some support to the idea that performance based pay is not something to be dismissed because of emotional proclivities, nor is there an abundant volume of scientific research that shows it does not work.

I would welcome your citations supporting your ideas.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]Ben, as someone with doctoral-level research training, I'm struck by how your partial list of citations includes Phi Delta Kappan, which advertises itself as a magazine, several non-journal articles, and then several citations from a single journal on that focuses on educational policy.

Are these the best that are out there?[/quote]

amosby's picture

[quote]Ben,

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]

amosby's picture

[quote]Ben,

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?

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