« No Miracles, No Saviors: We are the Ones | Main | Is Test Preparation Educational Malpractice? »

As We Assess, So Shall We Teach: Extra Pay for Merit or Malpractice?


One of the reasons I was excited about the election of Barack Obama was the chance it offered us to turn our energies in education in a positive direction.

His campaign website stated:

Obama and Biden believe teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests and he will improve the assessments used to track student progress to measure readiness for college.

There are disturbing signs, however, that under the leadership of Education Secretary Arne Duncan we may not have escaped the tyranny of the tests.

In his recent speech on education policy, Obama again spoke about merit pay, the idea that we should identify the best teachers and “reward them for their greatness.”

Arne Duncan later explained, saying "What you want to do is really identify the best and brightest by a range of metrics, including student achievement."

I have been researching and debating the idea of paying teachers more for improved performance for several years, and the sticking point is always the same. We do not have a clear, reliable method for assessing the contribution of an individual teacher to student learning. What is more, the primary means in place for assessing student learning are narrow and likewise inadequate. The whole emphasis of No Child Left Behind was to pressure schools and teachers to increase test scores – and it yielded the result decried by Obama and Biden during the campaign.

Test-driven reforms have lost legitimacy in the hearts and minds of America’s teachers and parents. Candidates Obama and Clinton found the mention of ending NCLB to be one of their most popular lines in their stump speeches. The public knows that schools have cut recess, kindergartens have eliminate time for play, and elementary schools have cut art, music, history and science, in order to focus instructional time on tested subjects – English and Math. They know teachers have become demoralized by the relentless pressure to boost scores. We are ready for a change.

I have heard Obama and Duncan speak of improved assessments, but until those assessments are shared and demonstrated to be of high quality, I am deeply skeptical, because it is so much easier and cheaper to use the assessments in place than to develop the capacity to assess student learning more deeply. Indeed, there are reports of a tremendous investment about to occur in improved data systems, all of which rely on the same old low-quality standardized test scores.

That does not mean it is impossible to measure student learning. The big question is can we build a system that is legitimate, and that actually expands student learning rather than narrows it. What would such a system look like?

Assessment should be tied to classroom instruction. Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam authored a seminal piece of work entitled Inside the Black Box, about a decade ago about the critical role formative assessment can play in guiding and promoting student growth. It can serve as timely feedback to both the teacher and the learner. For this reason, a solid assessment system would not only measure student performance once in the Spring, but numerous times during the school year. Teachers should play a central role in designing these assessments, so they are rich enough to encompass their instruction.

Assessment should allow students to express their understanding in more than one dimension. Most standardized tests are multiple choice and short answer, limiting the depth of knowledge that can be assessed. Students should be able to express their understanding in a variety of ways, and the use of portfolios scored with clear rubrics would allow this to measure richer expressions of learning. These portfolios can be shared with the public through open forums, at parent/teacher/student conferences, and at school-wide expositions.

Standards must be limited to critical big ideas in order allow instruction to achieve depth. Education reform policy has been driven by fear of foreign competition for far too long. There are those who believe that the tougher we make school, the better. So we shove math standards down earlier and earlier, so that 6th, 7th and 8th grade math teachers end up wasting months of instructional time re-teaching concepts that were introduced too early, and never mastered. And we have Algebra for all 8th graders mandated with little input from educators or regard for actual conditions in our schools. California’s science curriculum is likewise overly prescriptive and fact-driven. I think our students would be much better served by a more deliberate, in-depth curriculum than the current race to cram as many concepts in a semester as possible. Classroom teachers must be integrally involved in the creation of these standards.

Much of Obama’s agenda for education is positive. It is a relief to see that real resources will be flowing to early childhood education, and that there is a recognition of the value of excellent teachers. But we have fought the phony equivalence of test scores and student learning for too long to allow it to continue to distort our schools and harm our students. Yes, we want accountability for student learning. Yes, we want authentic assessments. Yes, we want rewards for excellent teachers.

But if those rewards are based on the same standardized tests that candidate Obama decried, what behavior will they promote? More emphasis on test preparation, and less time for art, science, music and history. Test preparation is educational malpractice -- it is bad for our students. We must not reward malpractice. To truly improve learning, rewards should be based on legitimate measurements, not the discredited tests that sunk No Child Left Behind.

As we assess, so shall we teach.

What do you think? How can we identify and reward excellent teachers? How can we best measure student achievement?


Another problem, Anthony, is that it creates fairness tensions between teachers who need to see eachother as part of a collegial effort. "How come...?"

But the most disturbing of all is what lies behind it is the assumption that most of us are less successful than we could be if only... Even if we could agree on what success was, some of us are not working our hardest, are lazy, uncaring or something--thus a promise of a financial reward might make us do better by our students.


My concern is not that "other" teachers are not working hard, a rather paranoid perspective. Rather it's that teachers are doing a great job, despite the context of US public schools. In a nutshell, teachers and schools have been scapegoated for US social, cultural, and financial ills.

We know a recent U.N. study found the USA to be #2 in poverty rate, when compared to industrialized nations. Mexico was the only nation that had a higher rate of poverty.

We know that the relatively high degree of US ethnic and language diversity inhibits academic test scores.

We know that international comparisons are apples to oranges and do not adequately account for differences in subpopulations or privilege. International comparisons are not used according to research ethics. Instead, they function as a political stick, a public educator whacker.

We know that the toxic carrot, teacher merit pay, will destroy what's left of teacher collegiality, will incite conflict among teachers, and will cause more stress related illness.

But to member your game and play along, I will suggest that merit pay be delivered to all public school teachers when any ONE teacher is successful. This need be the response, since the current political game must be reframed. Otherwise, teachers have little chance to sustain self or others within or around a classroom.

No, Marc, we do not "know that the toxic carrot, teacher merit pay, will destroy what's left of teacher collegiality, will incite conflict among teachers, and will cause more stress related illness." This is far too broad a generalization for what could be a very positive thing for teachers and students.

What's important, as Anthony points out, is that we [teachers] and the other stakeholders in public education reframe the discussion from "merit pay" to redesigning teacher pay scales based on our teaching not our attendance or just on test scores (tests will be with us for a long while, they will be part of the equation). What's needed, and what we can push for are more comprehensive, accurate, and rigorous measurements of both student learning and teacher performance. Developing those will take more thoughtful and thorough research--a good use for increased investment, but it doesn't carry the kind of urgency that crumbling school buildings or chronic teacher shortages do.

We can design a system of Pay for Performance that identifies excellence that will satisfy the vast majority of the public. No doubt some standardized measures will be used. However, a premium will be placed on the most effective teachers spreading their expertise to others. This will not be a simple system — but it will be one that can drive increases in 21st century learning and more democratic schooling. New technologies will help - but most importantly we HAVE to find time for teachers like Anthony and Renee to build the system.

Note: As co-founder of the Teacher Leaders Network I have been working with Anthony and Renee on performance pay reforms and am proud of their TeacherSolutions "p4p" framework.

Renee--thank you for your comments. From the viewpoint of an outsider, it frequently seems as though we are straining at a gnat, after having swallowed the camel. While it is true that teacher "base" pay is strictly equal--there are many "add-ons" that are very inequitably determined. Consider whether the debate coach receives the same rate of compensation for their extra time as the football coach. Summer school opportunities are formula driven--resulting not in teachers who like and do well in that format, but those who haven't had a turn in a while. Certainly there is plenty of room for "tinkering around the edges" of rewarding successful efforts that don't come anywhere close to basing salary on a "single measure" such as test scores. A teacher who is able to lead peers in curriculum development should certainly receive consideration--even if they teach in a non-tested area.

I don't think merit pay is the way to go. Look at the disaster we have right now because of bonuses, which are basically merit pay. Those bonuses did not ensure that we had great people making great decisions. It ensured that those who wanted more money did whatever they needed to do to get the "extras". Do we want that for our children? I don't.

I also don't want to be compared to a teacher that is teaching in a school that scores 900 when my students have made progress, but our school is only scoring 700. That's not fair.

A friend had mentioned this aspect to me which I thought was interesting as well. People in the business world are able to move from job to job and in most cases can get the same salary or more depending on their experiences. So when they are fired or decide that they have no more opportunities at their job, they can leave and find another job.

Teachers cannot do that. We cannot easily move from district to district because each district bargains individually. Two districts that are in the same city do not have the same pay scale or benefits.

Merit pay would be great if I were working in a factory. I don't. I work with children who have individual needs and wants. Merit pay will not help me make them better citizens. Music, art, history, science, literature, and math will help me to make them better citizens.

Kudos to those who support using student performance scores as a primary index for teacher p4p.

It boggles minds to understand for what purpose schools exist except to increase student scores. So, Yes, pay teachers for student academic performance, both absolute and relative.

And, Yes, some teachers who do not deliver these scores will not receive the same pay and may leave teaching (hopefully not going into school admin). That would be fair to students, whose interests in schools come before those of teachers.

Yes, Anthony, in a perfect world, your cautions make sense. In political reality, they appear as a self-interest stall, which I don't think you intend.

The whole purpose of merit pay is to reward "the best," with the idea being that this will in turn motivate everyone to do their best. But there is a problem with this, which I touched on in an earlier blog entry a few weeks ago. Most teachers did not enter the profession for the handsome salary. We entered because we want to make a difference in the lives of the children we teach. The most powerful thing that would motivate me to perform well at a school would be the opportunity to work in a supportive environment, with dedicated and enthusiastic colleagues, with time to meet, collaborate and learn together. These are the things that would help me become more effective individually, and help my school respond better to the challenges we face.
On the other hand, you could not pay me a bonus large enough to motivate me to work in a hostile school, with a dysfunctional administration. But somehow these conditions seem immutable -- so instead of changing them, we are going to try to bribe people to put up with them? That is a poor recipe indeed.

Kenya interjects some important limitations to teacher advancement and pay scale as it is currently in place. There is very limited freedom of movement for teachers, and I would add that the pay scales work to the disadvange of adults moving into teaching from other fields. A second-career adult, who may have a good bit of value-add in their previous work experience (dealing with the public, working collaboratively with co-workers, possibly even previous work with children in other settings) comes in at the same salary as an inexperienced fresh from college (only)newbie. I don't know that we are well-served by this bias against prior experience in related fields. Moving from district to district, or even building to building should not be discouraged by the reimbursement system, as this can be a source of strength, allowing for fresh viewpoints and the interruption of some existing toxic and dysfunctional staffs. In fact, I know some suburban districts to make such movement advantageous--setting relatively low entry salaries, with significant early bumps--and recruiting teachers with a few years experience from the big-city urban, to their detriment. When the only exit from a building is expected to be death, teachers not only hold on for dear life (even when the situation has become toxic), but teachers who leave or move (or heaven forbid, are let go) are greeted with extreme suspicion (they must be child molesters at the very least). Let's face it--everybody doesn't work well with everybody else, sometimes for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of work. Movement should be an expected part of teacher development. Associating salary changes with movements that take on greater responsibility (a more challenging school, position of greater leadership, etc) should be part and parcel of the pay structure.

I don't know that this necessarily destroys collegiality--nor am I aware of great levels of collegiality existing in schools today. I recall one principal who described his staff as being like "independent contractors who share a common parking lot." There may be lots of friendliness, but working together is something altogether different.

I find the whole debate on merit pay interesting. Everyone wants to apply business principals to teacher pay and performance, but teachers don't get to apply those same principals. Will I be able to fire students who don't perform or work to the best of their abilities, therefore lowering my over all scores? What about the parents of my students? Is there some way to force them to do their job, so that I can do mine more effectively? How can I monitor the eating, sleeping, TV/computer time, and study habits of each student so that they can be at their very best everyday? And, what about teachers before me who didn't do the required work and we have to play catch-up before we can tackle my course requirements.

Merit pay also indicates that unless I'm paid a bonus for doing my job, and the only reason for low test scores, is that I'm not doing my job. Quite frankly, I find this offensive.

What needs to happen is more accurate evaluations. If you can't pass muster in one school, why should be allowed to go to another in the same district and continue to teach and then br given tenure - or worse, allowed to go into administration?

Students and parents are your customers, not your employees.

Quercki M. Singer: then these are often customers who do not want the product they are required by law to receive.

If I sell pizzas and you want a hamburger, you are in the wrong place if you come to me as a customer. No matter how good my pizza is, it will not satisfy a customer who wants a hamburger.

This exchange points out the trouble with analogies -- which I believe is at the heart of the original point made by TJ. TJ is saying that in a factory, a manager might have some levers available that might allow him to increase production. Therefore giving him a production bonus might encourage him to work those levers vigorously, and result in increased output. TJ argues that teachers lack these same levers, and therefore, production bonuses won't work.

I take TJs point, but I think there is a deeper problem. Unfortunately there ARE levers teachers and schools can push to maximize output in the form of higher test scores -- as I describe in this post: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2009/03/is_test_preparation_educationa_1.html

So I would say the reason we should not reward higher test scores is that test scores are only one of many dimensions of educational outcome we should be concerned with, and when we focus on that one, we tend to lose others of equal value, and our students suffer as a result.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Most Viewed On Teacher



Recent Comments