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Why Performance-Based Pay for Teachers Makes Sense

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
Related Tags: Education Trends, All Grades
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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

Cameron's picture
Director of Learning & Teaching, Sydney

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?

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

Education will not be improved by increasing the pressure on teachers to teach better. More laws, more police, and more jails have not made the USA more moral. No Child Left Behind is a good title and the requirement to test the kids is a good one. However, NCLB is failing to improve education because all it does is try to increase the pressure on districts to improve their schools.
Teachers and districts are already very motivated to improve. We have to think our way out of our mess and the motivation comes from within. Education has hit rock bottom and its sorry state is spawning some exciting, new, and powerful ideas about how to teach and how children learn. In these ideas there is hope, not merit pay.

Kristina's picture
High School English/Reaching Teacher

I have to agree with the comments above. You have a significant hole in your argument. I teach remedial reading to high school students and I give pre, mid and post reading tests every semester. Within the same class, I have students who make significant growths, as well as students who stay at the same reading level. Many of my students are dealing with serious emotional issues and learning disabilities. My student who is suicidal and in and out of clinics or my student who is going through a criminal trial against her father whom she recently admitted abused her or my student who has an IQ of only 80 or my student who cannot focus on anything but cutting herself... these students will probably not make gains. I try my best and dedicate my efforts to helping them, but I can only do so much in the one period I see them a day, especially when I also have to focus on the other students in my classroom. It doesn't mean I don't give it my all, that I don't research new ways to motivate that student or reach that student. But I can't beat myself up when that student does not improve. Are you saying that these situations will weigh in the score a teacher is given at the end of the year? I'm not sure districts and states want to go through each teacher's roster with a fine-tooth comb to determine whether it was probable for that teacher to even help a particular student that school year.
However, yes, I agree that teachers need to be assessed. My school is fortunate enough to have an administrator who does not deal with students and gets to focus a lot of her time on the teachers. Not only does she read my lesson plans and provide helpful feedback, but she steps into my classroom often to see what I am doing as a teacher. In the middle and at the end of the year, I am evaluated as a teacher, based on my administrator's observations of me. This forces me to stay on my game. I am forced to make sure I am trying my best as a teacher because I know that I am being watched. I have worked for two other districts and in both I never had an administrator step foot in my classroom. No one could accurately evaluate my performance as a teacher. Instead of instituting an expensive testing system, why not use that money to hire an administrator who can serve as mentor to the teachers and who will have first-hand knowledge of the teachers' abilities and can, therefore, fairly assess the teachers?

Jessica Piper's picture

I was irritated, yet again, by this argument and had my fingers ready to do some mad typing, but it seems Andrew said it all. I am sick of people asking me what I do for a living only to say "Oh...your husband my make the money." Or, "Why didn't you get another degree so you could make REAL money?".

Money will never make me a better teacher...I am good at what I do because I love it.

And besides, everyone knows that teachers are only in it for the summers off=)


Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

"My school is fortunate enough to have an administrator who does not deal with students and gets to focus a lot of her time on the teachers. Not only does she read my lesson plans and provide helpful feedback, but she steps into my classroom often to see what I am doing as a teacher."

This makes sense. This needs to be a part of teacher evaluation more than anything else. One of my colleagues brought this up in a PD meeting. In order for an admin to really assess a teacher they really need to know that teacher by consistent, productive feedback. If Admins spend all day with discipline problems and paperwork they can't do that. All teachers teach differently and are effective on many different levels. Admins need time to discover the teaching styles of all of their teachers in order to give thoughtful feedback.

MRM's picture

Here are a few more things to ponder in your efforts to be equitable:

How fair is it that my daughter's math teacher is a disaster, but my husband and I are both math wizzes and we tutor her every night? Who gets the bonus, the teacher? What about the fact that many parents in well-to-do districts frequently hire outside tutors for their kids?

Also, as someone pointed out, some kids do not progress at a nice even pace. My younger daughter didn't even know all her letters going into kindergarten (not for lack of exposure...) By the end of kindergarten, she was reading easy chapter books. This is who she is. She has never been one to learn at a steady, even pace; and I have had to fend off the school a few times--they say they let her learn at her own pace (plateaus followed by large jumps), but then they write her off because she doesn't follow their nice pacing guide.

I had to pull her out for one year in 4th grade because she was so stressed from the pressure of testing that she stopped learning. She became a reader that year (at her own pace) and she now frequently reads 1000 pages a week and is an honors student.

My older daughter used to be my science kid until she took a Earth Science where all the teacher did was worksheets (parading as labs) and test prep for the end of year state test. The kids all begged her every class to go outside, but they never did; she told them to stop bugging her. (It was EARTH science, after all--it might have been appropriate to touch the ACTUAL Earth once or twice...) All the students did well on the EOY test. My daughter did very, very well on the test; but now she hates science. Should the teacher get a bonus?

How about students who know a lot and can express themselves verbally, but can't get it down in writing so well? Are the state tests a good indication of what those students "know"?

The bottom line is that the standardized tests have become so much more important than actual learning, and VAM efforts will only increase this. Did you know that they have almost no standardized tests in Finland? Don't you want our system to more like theirs, where students are actually taught to think?

Nancy's picture

How would this work fairly for special education students and teachers? I work in an SDC setting with kindergarten students with moderate - severe disabilities. They are too young for CAPA. Most of the time I use informal assessment and progress on goals. If we base it on progress on IEP goals there are a number of issues:

1. What will motivate me to write goals that I know will be challenging for students?
2. Will I be held accountable for goals written by specialists? By parents?
3. What happens when a student regresses or loses a skill due to a medical condition (ie, seizure disorders)?

I can't develop a position on the issue without hearing some real discussion with regard to how it would work for my area. Hopefully special education wil not be left as an afterthought.

Donna B VanSickle's picture

I have no problem with "value added" merit pay. I think it is a great idea. My issue comes with the grade level I teach--high school. I teach at-risk students, by choice. Many of these students are apathetic and waiting until they can legally drop out. I cannot add value to their educational level if they refuse to participate. This is a problem that is more prevalent at the high school level than at the lower grade levels. This issue is my concern when my livelihood is directly linked to the apathetic attitudes of my students.

zthatzmanz28's picture
Special education teacher, currently high school OCS (CI under 80 FSIQ) NC

Just curious as to what "measures" can be applied to a classroom where the average FSIQ is 60? Perhaps I would move into an AP class where value added is obvious and all I need to do is facilitate thought? As musch as I would live to be fairly compensated for my talent, I wonder if there would ever be a scale on which to measure what my students actually learn.

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

I am in a situation where I love my job, love my students, and hate the paperwork. Every minute I spend on red tape is a minute I can't spend with a teen who desperately needs my help and/or attention. Because it is special ed, I have students with behavior disorders, learning disabilities, and medical issues. Many come from disadvantaged homes. I know I am a good teacher, and I know I am making a difference in the lives of my students. However, we have an administration who does not value our entire department. We have obtained technology through grants, only to see it delivered to other classrooms. We have outdated texts, and no money to buy reading books. Like many other teachers, I am in my room early, stay there at lunch to help kids, and stay late nearly every day. Performance based pay will go to those teachers who are the "favored few" -- teachers of gifted kids, or coaches. And I can't get out of special ed into the realm of those who are favored. Bitter? No, not really. But disappointed that even though I work really hard to help kids succeed, I find my way blocked at nearly every turn.

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