The Pros and Cons of Teacher Performance Pay Part 2

In a previous piece, the arguments in favor of performance pay for teachers were examined.  This piece will focus on the opposition to performance pay.  It should be noted, this article was written before the revelations of the Vanderbilt study and the recent discussions of value-added assessments.  Please keep than in mind when reading this and the previous piece.

Performance pay opponents have many arguments against this teacher salary method.  Some critics disagree with using student test scores as a measurement for teacher performance.  Detractors worry this will encourage cheating among teachers and students.  If a teacher’s livelihood is based on how well their students do, it is not hard to imagine some teachers may  be tempted to alter student scores or giving unfair assistance on standardized tests.  In the Chicago School District, economist Steven Levitt found that some teachers had in fact altered their test scores to influences their salaries.

Those who dispute performance pay’s effectiveness also question if standardized test are even an accurate measure of student achievement  First there are the tests themselves.  Some educators are concerned multiple choice testing measures only what a child has memorized, not their understanding of a subject.  Deborah Meier, senior scholar at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University, has raised this question before.

Psychometric design of multiple-choice items requires some reasonable alternate answers that pick up reasonable alternate viewpoints, rather than simple-minded rights/wrongs. They also require test-makers to eliminate questions which don’t properly discriminate. Note: “Discriminate” here has a “narrow” psychometric meaning. (The unused passages and questions Jay Rosner of Princeton Review found in the pool of potential SAT items that black students more often got right than white students didn’t discriminate properly “statistically.”)

As one teacher put it, “The most important thing you learn in school is not the content of any particular discipline.  The most important thing is how to learn.  Try measuring that on a test.”  How can we measure all of the things a teacher does outside of testing?  Can we put a value on breaking up a fight, introducing a new technology to the classroom, or helping a child find their passion?  Dr. Catherine Lugg, from the University of Wisconsin School of Education Center for Education Research, Analysis, and Innovation, conducted a study of performance pay in 2001.  Dr. Lugg interviewed teachers for her study.  One told her the following.

A teacher of the deaf lost out because of a poor evaluation by an administrator who could not understand American Sign Language.  A science teacher who later left teaching to become an engineer and now has several patents to his credit received a dismal evaluation from an ex-coach turned principal who had no idea what the science teacher was talking about.  “My poorest appraisal in recent years came from a monolingual speaker of English who observed me teacher a Spanish reading class in which neither my students nor I spoke any English.”

There are other mitigating factors that can impact student performance and are often beyond a teacher’s control.  One of those is classroom disruptors.  A recent study has shown that disruptive students in a classroom can have a negative impact on overall student test scores.  In the study Scott Carrell, assistant professor of economics at the University of California–Davis, and Mark Hoekstra, assistant professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh, found that adding even one disruptive student to a class of twenty can lead to a decrease of math and reading test scores by more than two thirds of a percentile point.  The presence of a disruptive student also leads to a higher occurrence of disruptive behavior, according to the study.  It is easy to see how the cumulative effect on a classroom can quickly skew test scores.

There are also worries about what performance pay might do to the cooperative nature of teaching.  Jay Matthews, education writer for the Washington post, raised concerns that performance pay may negatively impact the teaching staff of charter schools.  “Their staffs thrive on teamwork,” Matthews said.  “Everyone shares lesson plans, swaps ideas and reinforces discipline to help each child.  Won’t big checks to just a few members of the team ruin that?”  Matthews highlighted the fears others have had saying that missing a bonus may frustrate some otherwise good teachers and spoil learning environments.

Though some studies mentioned earlier pointed to performance pay being successful, there have been others that showed inconclusive results.  Studies of a performance pay programs in Texas (Texas Educator Excellence Grant or TEEG) showed that the programs were ineffective at boosting student achievement.  Researchers from Vanderbilt University and the University of Missouri found no link between the TEEG program and improved standardized test scores.  The National Center on Performance Incentives also examined TEEG and came to the same conclusion. Another study done by the Urban Institute did not have a positive assessment of performance pay either.

The negative outcomes include (1) teacher morale problems from increased competition and divisiveness; (2) teachers being upset because they did not get the awards they deserved; (3) the use of quotas on the number of teachers who could receive awards; and (4) the plans were costly and time-consuming.  The authors also reviewed other studies of merit pay and found “little evidence from other research, including the evaluation of literature, that incentive programs (particularly pay-for-performance) had led to improved teacher performance and student achievements.”

The current push for performance pay is not the first time similar methods have been tried.  President Richard Nixon attempted a form of performance pay he referred to as “performance contracting” in 1969.  The plan was scrapped after little or no gains came and schools began doctoring student scores and teaching students following the exact tests they would be taking, a practice referred to as “teaching to the test”.

Opponents of performance pay find the implementation to be too costly and complex.  What exactly teacher performance is hotly debated.  As discussed earlier, student test scores may not be accurate measures of what children are actually learning.  Principal evaluations can also be inaccurate.  Not every principal in the state of Maine, for example, will have the same standard of what a makes one teacher “good” and another not.  Principals could be swayed by teacher bribes or simply by rewarding their favorites.  If a comprehensive standardized system for evaluation were developed, it would take a large investment of resources to provide Principals with time to effectively carry out this task.  The cost of added bureaucracy would be a hard sell, especially in a time of tight budgets.

The cost of performance pay programs themselves may be too large for many districts to bear.  Heritage Peak, mentioned earlier, set aside $150,000 for performance pay.  The performance pay system in Denver, Colorado received its funding from a $25 million property-tax increase.  The TEEG program in Texas cost $300 million over three years and their new District Awards for Teacher Excellence (DATE) will receive $200 million in funding annually. Washington DC Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee has even touted the idea of “$100,000 teachers”.  In this economic climate, ideas like that would likely face stiff opposition from voters.

Performance pay for teachers can be difficult territory for educations to traverse.  For every nearly ever pro there is a con and vice versa.  Implementing a better form of pay for teachers rather than tenure is not impossible. To treat performance pay, however, as a cure all for educational ills is just as narrow-minded as rejecting it entirely.  Time may be the only factor that will show whether Performance or Tenure Pay or some variation of both will prove to be the best method for teachers and their administrators. Both sides of the argument must be examined carefully.  Only then will educational administrators arrive at a better method of paying teachers that works for everyone and subsequently and ultimately benefits the children they are teaching.