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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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Maurice J. Elias's picture

Many thoughtful readers have commented, and for me, the quote below captures a key point. We need evaluation that is fair and sensible. Maybe we need to take a lesson from President Obama and bypass formal institutions and get groups of teachers and other educators and performance assessment experts together to create a system. But until we do have a fair system, using test scores as is generally being proposed is an example of identifying the problem, having a solution, but not solving it.
[quote]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.[/quote]

Liz's picture

I couldn't agree more, evaluation that make sense! We teach in a certain way and then send the students off to test in a different way. Teaching to the test is not a recommended practice, so why not re-write the test. Change how the students are being evaluated and make it something that is helpful to students and teachers, not hurtful!

Andrew's picture

There is such a test. It takes 1-3 years and is called National Board Certification. It tests content knowledge, ability to diagnose and apply strategies to student learning problems, observes the classroom through videos, observes the teacher's impact on their school and community through outside verification, and evaluates the teacher's ability to reflect on their teaching to become better. It's a great means of evaluating quality teachers.

Andrew's picture

There is such a test. It takes 1-3 years and is called National Board Certification. It tests content knowledge, ability to diagnose and apply strategies to student learning problems, observes the classroom through videos, observes the teacher's impact on their school and community through outside verification, and evaluates the teacher's ability to reflect on their teaching to become better. It's a great means of evaluating quality teachers.

Silvia's picture

I agree with Laura Q. completely. It would be unreal to base my pay on my special education students' performances in class and their achievements on state tests. These students are functioning at their highest level which usually is 4 or more grade levels below their nondisabled peers. There are goals set for these students, which sometimes takes years for them to achieve. Yes, I agree that as a teacher, I have a job to do, but how can my salary be determined by state test results, which nondisabled students are also struggling with? As stated in a previously reviewed blog, I am not magician; I'm just a concerned and dedicated teacher!

LCJamesS's picture
5th grade teacher from Merritt Island, Florida

As a teacher who will soon be forced to teach where state testng determines my salary do to a soon to be instated bill for merit pay, I agree whole heartedly with your analogy. How can I be encouraged to teach in a way that will inspire my students to understand (not just gain knowledge) while making sure I keep my job, if I have been told the only way to prove my value is how my students perform on one test. I also agree that I can not choose the "materials" I work with. I do not go shopping to find the needed students. Instead, I am assigned students from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. These things are often out of my control long before they ever enter my room. Yet, soon I will be required to make great gain with every student or I will not be seen as a valuable teacher whose job should remain.

Maurice J. Elias's picture

The comments to my post have been enlightening and have raised many points that I only hinted at or perhaps did not even consider. The excerpt from Chris Berg's quote, below, points out a fundamental concern of any evaluation system: Fairness. I think that we have two crude systems in need of a dialectical solution, i.e., seniority and individual teacher pay linked to student performance. Both of these approaches are flawed, both have their adherents, and we now must have the courage to move forward in the spirit of continuous improvement and embrace new approaches whose effectiveness may not be clear until they are attempted, and attempted well. To cling to approaches that are conceptually flawed, like seniority and test-score linked performance, is a disservice to children and to the education profession. We want our children to be courageous learners, to question received wisdom with rigor, and to be creative in generating knowledge for the changing conditions of modern life. We must be willing to model this for our students. Even in academia, the bastion of stability (if not stasis!), post-tenure review has been instituted to provide a vehicle for accountability of scholars as long as they are employed. Particularly in publicly funded universities, this is the only responsible position one can take. Such systems are works in progress, but administered by faculty and administrators in good faith, they represent a higher ideal than tenure, i.e., tenure with responsibility. We need to devote ourselves to the pursuit of a higher ideal than the proponents of seniority or merit tied to test scores are espousing.

Maurice Elias

[quote] 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?[/quote]

Beatriz Zarraluqui's picture

The idea of basing an educator's salaray on student performance is absurd!! As an educator, how can I be expected to take 30 children on multiple levels and within 8 months have them all met grade level expectations when half the time is not even spent teaching. Every students enters the classroom on a differnt lovel, most below. It cannot solely be the job of the teacher to raise this child. Teachers witht he help of parents and community shoud work together to have every child succede. Districts must stop the overaboundance of testing and let the teachers teach! If teachers fear their salary will be cut, education will suffer.

Kathryn's picture

Nothing bothers me more than the teachers who have given up, are burned out and skate by with the bare minimum. I firmly believe that something needs to be put in place to hold teachers more accountable than the current evaluation process. However, I do not believe merit pay is the solution. There are so many factors that influence student achievement other than the teacher that they have for one academic year. Prior teachers, family background, and student transiency are just some of the factors that contribute to student success. Therefore it seems hardly fair or logical to reward teachers with merit pay. Secondly, when you reward teachers for student achievement the desire to teach in challenging communities diminishes. These are the areas where good teachers are needed the most. I teach in this type of community and although I feel completely dedicated to my school and I would never consider leaving, even with the addition of merit pay, I know that many of our good teachers would leave. Finally, people who go into this profession do not choose it for the money. It is a calling. It is a passion. Teachers should not want to teach for money. The reward we receive is in the knowing that we made a difference in a child's life.

Michelle's picture

As a teacher, I do feel that we have a great responsibility. It is our job to make sure that our students pass and are successful. However, is this only dependent upon teachers? What role should the students, parents, community, etc. play in this? As a teacher, we really can only control what happens at school in the learning environment. We are required to give the students what they need in order to succeed. But what happens when they leave school? How are teachers responsible for their learning? We can't make them study, read books, or do homework at home. Therefore, the students and parents must also take responsibility in this. The students could below grade level and had to be promoted anyways for many different reasons. I teach fifth grade now and I have some students who read on a 2nd grade level. There is no way possible that I can make them reach 5th grade level by the end of the year. However, we can make improvements in that reading level. I do not feel that teachers salary should totally be based on student performance. I feel that is should be a percentage of student performance and other factors.

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