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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Should Teacher Salaries be Linked to Student Performance?

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger

A classroom of students is the collective product of all of the educators, support staff, paraprofessionals, classmates, parents, and living conditions that have accumulated to that point.

Here's what I mean:

Let's imagine for a moment that you are a building contractor. You are called in to help finish a building and it turns out you are the fifth contractor to work on this building. Your salary will be based on how well the structure passes a variety of tests. It seems that the third contractor, to save on costs, did not use qualified personnel on the job.

Several suppliers to the second contractor gave defective materials but passed them off as adequate. The first contractor was novice, on her first job ever, and was quite conservative in procedure, staying within code but not providing adequate room for extreme expansion in the joints.

The contractor before you, the fourth one, saw many of the problems and did a large number of creative things to fix them but ended up leaving without fully documenting this good work.

Finally, you learn that the building itself is erected on ground that was not meant to support a building of the size of the current structure, without considerably more support being given to the foundation. When the building is evaluated, it's found to be wanting in some, but not all, areas and your compensation is affected.

With this scenario in mind, I don't believe we know how to adequately evaluate what a teacher accomplishes relative to the background of the students who walk in the door in any given year.

At the very least, we will need ways of building in historic and contextual factors in understanding what teachers accomplish relative to what is reasonably possible given their circumstances. We would not expect the fifth contractor in the scenario to be fully responsible for the building he or she was forced to complete based on the structure inherited.

There is a way to be accountable, but it must be far more sophisticated than what is being contemplated today in most instances by districts and public schools.

We will not attract the best individuals to enter education if we have a compensation system that is not sophisticated, appropriate, and, ultimately, fair. What do you think? Please share your thoughts!

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi Maurice,
I couldn't agree more; I think that we've got to get away from this simplistic view that the only person responsible for a child's learning is the teacher who takes them in the test year. Everything that current research points to about learning suggests that it is a far more complex matter than the current school models would suggest - and therefore performance-based bay would be a travesty.

We must remember that, while teachers have a (large) part to play in a child's learning and development, so too do their parents, friends, communities and many other people.

Chris Berg's picture
Chris Berg
Student Achievement Teacher- Phoenix, AZ

Very interesting analogy. However, is it fair for you (contractor #5), following the rules, very competent worker, probably putting in extra time and/or resources, to be paid the same or less than contractor #3? My biggest concern with not making the change to performance-based pay is that I have worked with some teachers who were only on site 15 min before/after school, didn't prepare lesson plans, showed marginal to poor results with their students, yet were paid more than others for the simple fact that they had years of experience. Is that fair?

Ken Gatzke's picture
Ken Gatzke
Prof. of Philosophy Southern Connecticut State University

An aspect of the analogy deserving consideration regards the purposes for building as opposed to teaching. Architects have very specific directions from the client in the vast majority of cases and contractors are expected to follow the resulting plans in detail. There is usually a tightly controlled relationship between the purposes the building will serve and the means used in design and construction and much of this is enforced by law. While there may be legally required elements in education, these function primarily as means to something else, perhaps, "being an educated person", a difficult notion. In fact, there may not be general agreement in a community about that, as many people see public education as ultimately job-oriented, even if the next step (means) is college. At this point--the question of overall purpose--the analogy to building construction is weak and probably obscures a topic that should be considered regarding teacher compensation. A danger here is to think that what are means (what the law requires) are ends and so think that there are easily identifiable targets which may be used as criteria for judging success. The more one thinks educating is like building construction the more one is likely to think merit pay makes sense.

Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

We need to be sure we understand the complexity of the subject here. For example, most teacher unions do not even want to talk about this because they do not want competiton, which means that less effective colleagues get to hang around and make education worse. If unions wanted to make a difference for students then chop the head off of the mediocrity monster and help districts build an effective teacher performance pay system.

keliadee's picture

We also have to take into consideration that public school teachers cannot inspect their students before the enter the classroom. There are a lot of outside forces that are at play. A contractor can stop buying products from a company that gives him shoddy products, but I can't fire a parent who doesn't do their job. I am a proud union member and I hate the fact that sub par teachers are protected, but that is often because the administration does not do their job to get rid of them either. I am not against merit pay, but there are a grand total of 14 questions from my subject area on the state test. If a student missed a few days they could literally have missed all of the instruction on those topics. I also want to add that I am not opposed to testing. I am an AP teacher with a very high success rate. We just need to remember we are talking about kids who may choose or not choose to take part in the learning process and who are coming in with a myriad of issues unrelated to school, not a pile of raw materials that teachers can shape into whatever the "customer" wants.

keliadee's picture

"I don't believe we know how to adequately evaluate what a teacher accomplishes relative to the background of the students who walk in the door in any given year."

I couldn't agree more, rather than bashing teachers and unions, we should be asking how do we do this so that it is fair and makes sense?

Susan Litherland Grebe's picture

From my perspective as a teacher, I must take the student from where they are forward. That starting point may be one of performing below, on, or above where they "should be" for their appropriate age/grade level. I must "inspect" or research the background of my students so that I understand their needs (emotionally, physically, and educational). I strive to make gains with all students no matter where they are in their performance level. If a gifted student does not show some gains in my classroom, I believe that I have not done my job with that student. If the lower performing/struggling student does not show improvement then I have failed here as well. I do not believe in just teaching to the middle. I do believe all students have talents ... we need to find them and use them to help that student realize their greatest potentials. If we, as teachers, are not willing to make the student the center of our planning, our purpose for teaching, the goal.....then we are in the wrong place.

As for pay, I think the pay needs to reflect this attitude and striving to help each and every student to gain. The occupation of teacher is a professional one, one that requires a college degree (if not multiple ones) to be able to even apply. Teachers need to be treated and respected as professionals not only in the way they are compensated, but in the way they are looked upon and accepted in the social arena as well. As in any other profession (or job, for that matter), if you are not doing the job then you need to be out.

Meg Hill's picture

How do we put value on student work? We assess (or should assess) that they have learned the material and can adapt and use the information. Why couldn't that be the same for teachers?

Couldn't someone develop a skills assessment, test, rubric, something that can measure what things research is telling us to use and what we have been trained to use. Why are teachers different than every other sector.

My husband works in a company where they use skills assessments to find personal gaps in knowledge as well as group gaps and then work their professional development toward those gaps.

I think that basing any kind of evaluation of a teacher's performance on student achievement is unfair and impossible - there are too many variables.

But, certainly teachers need to be evaluated. And I would LOVE to be evaluated based on what and how I perform. That is how the real world works.

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