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Incentive Pay: Pass or Fail?

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Despite past disappointments, one third of the nation's school districts are currently poised to implement performance incentive plans for teachers.

In this Education Week Commentary, James W. Guthrie and Matthew G. Springer caution that, without further experimentation and fine-tuning, incentive pay plans will continue to fail. As a result, they argue, the potential positives of such reforms will be forever shadowed by mounting feelings of frustration and a long history of repeated failures.

What do you think? Is this second go-round a wise move, or just another fleeting and ill-advised reform dream? Should more districts establish pay-for-performance programs for teachers? Or would such policy measures likely have little effect on student achievement and teacher performance?

14 Comments

As a former teacher, guidance counselor at all grade levels and having worked with school staffs from "underachieving schools" I have never understood the thinking behind pay for performance! Teachers do not get to select who is in their class. Teachers in standard public school do not control where the students come from or where they go when they are not in their classroom. I attended a staff meeting of a "failing elementary school" when the test results were handed out. There had been very little progress.
I know as an outsider how hard ALL of the staff had worked to reach and teach their students. I know how many outside groups had volunteered to help and how much the district had invested in money and staff. I cried along with many of the staff members. The principal was great. She told them she knew how hard they had worked and that things couldn't change overnight.
Everyday the school staff escorts the children across the street to their public housing area known for drugs, shootings and lack of parental or adult guidance. The majority of the children had not been at the school for grades K,1,2 so how could the teachers be held accountable at the 3rd grade level??? Pay for performance......no wonder it is difficult to attract or maintain teacher at these schools!

In order for it to work, pay for performance must have two components. These are: student achievement as measured by inpartial third party tests and a reward system for the students as well. On the latter, rewards must be positive and negative. Use your imagination on the positive and on the negative, the students must meet minimum standards or no extracurricular activities.

I think that pay for performance is another case of the usual American response to a problem--if it doesn't work, we continue to do it even harder, as if that will make a faulty idea work. I think we are fully capable of change, but we have to think it through. What we need to do is work toward collegiality--we need to encourage sharing of ideas, teachers meeting to critically review one another's performance and offer helpful insights, and so on. If we as educators are in competition, it's FOR America's children as a whole. Just as in a sports team, if the team members compete with each other, the team fails. We have to learn to cooperate, and to do that on a new & higher level. If the US Army, Navy, Marine, etc. were focused on competing with each other in the field, it'd be a disaster. We can't foster negative competition among teachers, either, if we really care about the kids we serve.

I am in favor of pay for performance (incentive pay). However, incentive pay, in and of itself, will do nothing to change anyone's teaching style or curriculum. Factors that will change teaching style are teacher training, more time to plan lessons with colleagues, and an overall compensation package that can attract highly competent professionals from related careers. That teachers derive generally from the lowest academic tier in college is well documented. Teachers are paid so far below salaries in industry that a mere 5 - 15% adjustment in incentive pay will do little or nothing attract more competent teachers and alter this abysmal statistic.

a comment

Incentive pay for performance? There are better examples in our personal lives.

Consider restaurants. We routinely eliminate the worst from our consideration. When sufficient numbers reject the worst, they cease to operate. School principals need and deserve the power to eliminate the poorest performing of their teachers, unless all are above average, as in Lake Wobegon. The power to discharge is speedily ruined when process impositions overwhelm effective executive power. If we had to endure similar processes in choosing baby sitters, restaurants, or even doctors, we could not live effective lives as citizens.

Our present education system has become a bizarre world in which postured concern for fairness segues into perpetual unfairness as successive generations of students endure dysfunctional teachers whose continued employment confirms that we have a malfunctioning education system. I speak not of all teachers, of most teachers, or even a large minority. But if we removed the bottom few percent our national future would be brighter and we would be more competitive globally.

Principals know, or can learn, the spread of teacher ability in their classrooms. Principals should have the power and the charge to flexibly allocate a larger percentage of the total employment budget to the top few teachers and to reduce pay to the bottom few who remain after the worst are eliminated. The higher pay should not be termed incentive pay because I believe that money does little to incentivize employees.

Seniority should not be bar to higher pay and seniority should not be a barrier to discharge for low performance.

Our staggering domestic and international deficits accurately foretell a darker economic future for our nation. I blame the institution of education for a role in our decline.

I agree with Jean Stohlman, she has some very good points. In addition, I would say that performance pay comes with political recognition and rewards. As a former state employee for the Georgia Department of Corrections, I know that performance pay only leads to a “good oh boy” system and we do not need this in our schools.

All of the "pay for performance" plans I know reward teachers for the performance of students on district selected tests. Yes, there are the conventional plans for rewarding teachers for getting credits and years of service. These could also be called "pay for performance," but, as everyone knows, they are not (or, at least, no longer). As Professor Gutherie knows, "pay for performance" often works in ways districts do not expect or, at least, advertise. First, teachers learn to find a school within the district or a nearby district with good students and ask for a transfer. The rewards will be immediate and quantifiable in "psychic and after-school pay"--although not necessarily resulting in a classroom salary increase. Frank McCourt's recent book is an account of such a transfer. Second, teachers can learn, after analyzing test results in classroom (teacher prepared) pre-test tests, to narrow the curriculum to only test-like (despite security, easy to know) items, to test and re-test very frequently, to ignore problem of long term retention, and to develop students' test-taking strategies. And, also, to plan for outside activities on test days for 2 or 3 students at the bottom (keep at 10% or below). Of course, these tactics, widely used and understood, are what "pay for performance" promotes. Point: Pay for performance often works. It just does not work the way everyone advertises it.

Just another move to drive special education teachers out of the field. It's so sad.

This is the the most effective way to drive the best teachers out of the profession entirely. There are only so many schools with students who actually care to learn. These upper-income schools would attract the best candidates and then the remaining teachers would be left with the low-income and/or underperforming schools.
I spent the last 6 years of my teaching career in a Title I, low performing school and it was like a "battlezone". Teachers should be given "hazard/stress bonuses" for teaching at these types of schools. Instead, the Merit Pay would drive them further away. Many teachers,l myself included are under so much stress from dealing with behavior problems and lack of motivation that it is adversely affecting our health. Imagine yourselves being soley responsible and penalyzed for the success of someone who refuses to do anything to help themselves. That is the life of today's educators. No wonder we have a teacher shortage.
If the political agenda is to break public education, which in my opinion is the case, then this is the surefire cure for the demise of public education. Look at the writing on the wall. Teachers are being forced to use pacing guides and curriculum maps. They are being dictated exactly what to teach, when to teach it and how to teach it. This looks like the push will be to hire unskilled aids to deliver "scripted" curriculum to public school students negating the need for highly qualified teachers. If this is what you want for America's children we are well on our way.
Here's a novel idea: Why not propose to hold STUDENTS and PARENTS accountable for their academic success. Teahcers have been the scapegoats for a pervasive societal problem of no accountability for students.
I can, and do, lead my students to well planned, diverse learning experiences that challenge them at all levels of cognition while utilizing a plethera of research-based instructional strategies to reach all learning stlyes.
Unfortunatly, as with the proverbial "horse" they can be led to learning, but I cannot make them learn. The students today are content to disrupt, disrespect, do little or no homework
(or classwork), and fail knowing they will be passed from grade to grade with no accountability on their part. Parents are absently copliant and assume no personal responsibility for their own failure to hold their children accountable.

Merit pay? How about "Battle/Stress" pay for those of us who have not fled the profession already?

If the goal is to improve the education of each child, incentives based on standardized tests will certainly not help. All it will accomplish is make some teachers focus more on teaching to the tests because that's what they're being rewarded for. The assumption that all students of a given age are developmentally ready to know and be able to do the same things at the same age is fundamentally flawed. Basing teacher pay on an already flawed basis merely compounds the problem.
Rather than trying to bribe teachers to do something they don't honestly believe can be done (you can't "buy" expectations), why not reward those who are already doing a great job. Using value-added assessment--assessing the advances made by each student each year--would make it pretty clear who was doing an effective job with the majority of his/her students. If 90% of a teacher's students are making good progress, it would also help identify students who need extra help.
Shifting the focus from No Child Left Behind to Move Every Child Ahead would at least begin to return the focus of education to the strengths and weaknesses of individual students rather than the one size fits all mentality whose focus is knowledge, not students.

Merit pay? Pay for performance? Give me a million dollars a year, and that will not be an incentive for my students to learn. I work in a Title 1 school and have choosen to work there. That is where I can do my best work. I have worked at the best-of-the-best schools and the students there performed because they have family support and the drive to learn was passed on to the children. In these Title 1 schools, the kids are taught that when the system wants you to learn and you don't want to, find someone else to blame. We as teachers can give all that we are to our students, but if the student doesn't want to learn and have uneducated parents that live a good life from the government, what is their incentive to have to learn. We have professional basketball and football players that cannot speak a proper sentence. They make millions. We have kids that wear $500.00 shoes to school that cannot read. Why should they learn? The teachers are not the problem. Incentives are a good thing, but performance pay will drive teachers from the low performing schools and where would we be then? We do not have the option of who is in our classrooms, we can only do the best with what we are given. We have the only profession that our products have a mind of their own and what they learn is up to them. No Child Left Behind...give me a child that wants to get ahead and I will show you performance.

Teacher pay for performance appears to be advocated by business and industry leaders. Despite the fact that private sector performance is much more amenable to measurement for pay for performance purposes, I have seen little discussion of its effectiveness in the private sector. I also believe that I've read that management icons such as Demming have not been supportive of pay for performance in the private sector. With so many factors affecting childrens' classroom performance, many of them outside the control of the teacher/school, I don't see that it would be humanly-or ethically possible to institute such a scheme. Unless, of course, we were to reduce the educational process to the most fundamental rote memorization of very basic skills. Not a good idea, in my opinion.

It's a mistake unless the performance criteria can be objectively measured and specified, which I believe is impossible for teaching. Incentive pay in business mostly does not work, and I doubt that the results would be much different in education. Sales jobs are one of the few jobs where it works, but even there it can be missused and abused resulting in either overly paying someone doing an okay job and severly underpaying someone doing a great job. Also, being in industry for many years now, I've seen the behaviors of people in an incentive environment and most people perform no differently than if they are getting an incentive or not when the productivity increase cannot be measured daily and accurately.

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