January 1, 2011

Performance Pay for Teachers

Performance pay for teachers based largely on test scores = inequality and strong incentive for drill & (s)kill (teach to the test). We should not be discouraging risk taking by teachers. To the contrary, we should be encouraging innovative teaching and learning methods. 

So says our new Iowa Department of Education Director, Jason Glass (@jasonglassbfk), who recently wrote on his blog
We need to do whatever we can to introduce more risk-taking, experimentation, and use of technology in schools. We should expect some failures, applaud those who fail in pursuit of bold dreams, and help them get up to try again.
Our schools are in trouble, and we need to do a better job of preparing students for their futures. I'm not opposed to performance pay for teachers. I'm opposed to the simplistic idea that we can measure teacher performance based largely on students' standardized test scores. That's how the general public and too many politicians seem to interpret it. Doing so completely ignores the realities of socioeconomic and demographic disparities between schools, not to mention individual motivational factors. What incentivises students (or their families) to perform well on those standardized tests? What incentivises a good teacher to work in an inner-city, impoverished, or otherwise struggling school?

Tying salaries to arbitrary test scores will encourage teachers to focus less on children and more on tests. Let's come up with more sophisticated and accurate ways to measure how well teachers teach and students learn.


  1. Hi Rob,

    I agree with you that pure "cash for test scores" schemes are bad idea. The Vanderbilt POINT study showed us that in dramatic fashion - such approaches have a long history of failing. Not only do they distort goals on a very narrow definition of student success, they fail to take into account that nearly all teachers are primarily driven to help kids, not to pad their wallets.

    With that said, the current step and lane system of paying educators is simply nonsensical. It attaches compensation to two components that we know have no (or at best a conditional) relationship to good teaching: years of experience and graduate degrees.

    My position on compensation is that we need to get innovative about it as well. We are already differentiating pay, we are just doing it based on experience and graduate degrees. Why can't we do it on things that matter to schools like teaching and learning?

    What I want is for local school districts to work out innovative and new ways of compensating teachers. Performance pay is one part of it. But so is pay for teacher leadership roles, pay for hard to fill subjects, pay for working in tough schools, and pay that incentivizes the best and brightest to come into our field ... and to stay.

    I see compensation as one more avenue for innovation. By no means am I saying we need to pay teachers less - we can't pay you enough for your service really. I am saying we need to be smarter about it.

    Thanks much for raising the issue - I am really looking forward to the conversations with the tremendous Iowa educators I've already connected with.

    Jason Glass
    Columbus, OH

  2. Thanks for the taking the time to add your comment. I'm glad we seem to agree that more innovative models are needed for any sort of performance pay. Please don't discount years of experience and advanced degrees, however. These are valuable assets too and should be included among other factors. We should not take binary positions about test scores, experience, or degrees. None of these should be exclusive to or excluded from a balanced and fair approach to compensation for teachers.

    Thanks again for joining this conversation! I've enjoyed following your comments on Twitter and elsewhere recently. I love that you are connected and already engaged with some of Iowa's most innovative educators through social media. Congratulations on your new leadership position and welcome to Iowa!

  3. Hi Robin,

    You are certainly welcome! I appreciate the opportunity to engage in discussions on this issue. There is so much fear and "myth-busting" to do on the topic - I'll take every chance I can get! I do appreciate you raising the issue and I commend your leadership.

    The research on years of experience and education credits show they have conditional relationships with teacher quality. For example, there seems to be a clear increase in educator effectiveness somewhere around 3-5 years of experience. Some research even shows a decline in effectiveness after about 18 years (or so).

    Yet, we structure steps where educators are on a continuously upward trajectory regardless of what research tells us on the association of experience and effectiveness. One reason we lose so many younger teachers is that they are just above the poverty line many cases. One reason we have veteran teachers hanging on to teach another year even when THEY would rather go do something else is the high step they are on, compounded by the retirement system.

    What if we raised the base pay for all teachers, compressed (or flattened) the whole scale, and made some kind of significant increase happen after that 3-5 year mark (maybe coinciding with tenure?). Just an idea...

    On advanced degrees, research tells us that unless the degree is in the specific content area being taught ... it has no correlation with good teaching/learning. Think of the billions of dollars and teacher hours we've wasted chasing degrees that have practically no association with good teaching.

    What if that money were put toward base pay to lift salaries for all teachers, or used to address market realities (we don't have enough math, science, sped, bilingual teachers, or teachers working in our toughest schools). We could also pay for degrees in content areas, rather than the vacuous areas of "education leadership" or "curriculum and instruction." Again, just ideas...

    Thanks again for the discussion. I look forward to working with Iowa's great educators as we confront this important question together.

    Jason Glass

  4. No good. This will put an end to any type of teamwork, collaboration, etc. among teachers...at my school anyway!