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What About the New Teacher-Pay System?

When National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel announced his support for a Professional Growth Salary Framework to replace the step-and-lane pay schedule, he temporarily silenced reformers who have portrayed teachers unions as obstuctionists ("The Nation's Largest Teachers Union Calls for Revamp of Teacher-Pay System," American Progress, Oct. 25).  

With the exception of tenure, no issue is as contentious as pay-for-performance. As I see it, the challenge now is for the NEA and - by extension - the American Federation of Teachers to convince their members that the new system is fair.  It's going to be a tough sell because attempts in the past to differentiate pay have not worked as expected.  I won't bother reciting the history of this issue, since so much has already been written about it.  But I urge Van Roekel and others to learn from the experiences of districts that have tried this route and found to their dismay that teachers do not respond in the same way to incentives as those in other fields.

I know that the District of Columbia will immediately be cited as evidence of the viability of pay-for-performance ("D.C. Teachers Improved After Overhaul of Evaluations, Pay," Education Week, Oct. 22).  According to a study, weak teachers were motivated to improve, and effective teachers were spurred to post even higher outcomes. But I cite Texas as a rebuttal. A pilot program called the Texas Educator Excellence Grant began in the 2005-06 school year, and was expanded to a statewide program a year later.  It earmarked $100 million for teacher bonuses tied primarily to test scores at 1,150 schools.  But in May 2009, the program was terminated because it was found to be "inconclusive" on student achievement.  More recently, I refer readers to the American Educational Research Association's finding based on three different pay-for-performance programs ("Incentive Pay Programs Do Not Affect Teacher Motivation or Reported Practices," Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Mar.).

Explicit incentives work when tasks are simple and easily assessed, and when employees control the outcome. But these three factors are conspicuously absent from teaching.  As a result, if teachers feel that their jobs are threatened because of conditions they are not responsible for, NEA's proposal will not fly.  Nevertheless, Van Roekel maintains: "The first thing you have to decide on is what you differentiate the pay on?  Is it skills and knowledge? Is it responsibility?  And as soon as you decide that answer, you have to say: How will I measure it?" I'd like to know his answer to these questions.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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