Pay Teachers for Performance: Caveat Emptor

For those investing in the stock market, a company’s report invariably includes the warning: Past performance does not predict future returns—or something like that. It is how mutual funds and brokers let you know that they cannot promise high returns similar to the fund’s performance in previous years. In a bull market when stocks are on the rise, the words are often ignored. In a bear market when stocks fall in value, the words carry a punch.

Since the 1950s, school policymakers have bought and sold reform creating a bull market while ignoring warning words about past performance of those reforms. In touting pay-for-performance plans, federal and state decision-makers fail to point out (or ignore) past efforts to link teacher performance to money that have been a series of disasters plainly seen by those who know their history. In fact, an honest reformer’s advice to would-be buyers of these schemes would be: The lousy record of pay-for-performance plans does, indeed, predict the future.

Consider England in the late-19th century, the history of merit pay plans since the 1920s, and U.S. performance contracting in the 1960s. Using cash to spur teachers to get students to learn more, faster, and better, these plans stumbled repeatedly in narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, and sowing distrust among teachers and administrators. Ultimately, policymakers abandoned the plans. Few researchers and knowledgeable policymakers would dispute these previous failed efforts.

Yet in the past decade, influential decision-makers have again adopted experiments (see podgursky, springer) to pay cash to teachers for raising student scores in Texas, Florida, Minnesota, and scores of school districts across the nation. In 2006, Congress authorized nearly $100 million a year to fund states, districts, and charter schools to develop and put into practice teacher and principal pay for performance (or P4P in business-speak).

Amid recurring amnesia about pay-for-performance plans, the romance with P4P has heated up again. The reasoning behind these plans is clear:

*Teachers are the single most important in-school influence on student learning.

*Yet the best teachers cannot be sorted out from the mediocre and incompetent ones through current evaluation, tenure, and salary policies.

Most teachers become tenured after as little as two or three years of teaching beyond the probationary year, much too soon to determine the effectiveness of those teachers. Evaluating teachers annually has become a charade in which 99 percent are rated satisfactory. And money is distributed through single salary schedules that are chained to credentials and years of experience, not classroom effectiveness. So something else must be done to sort out successful from unsuccessful teachers. Enter P4P.

With the “educationalizing” of economic problems, particularly since the Nation at Risk report (1983) and the penetration of business-driven solutions for school problems, policymakers, operating in a reform “bull market,” have embraced economic incentives in P4P programs to distinguish between effective and ineffective teachers.

To dump the single salary schedule, fundamentally change evaluation procedures, and invest hundreds of millions of dollars in P4P, a reasonable person might think that many research studies would support such efforts. Not so. Recent reviews of P4P efforts in the U.S. and in other nations (see Podgursky and Springer PDF above) conclude that “We still lack evidence-based guidance for designing effective P4P programs.”

Basic design questions of whether to reward individual teachers or entire school faculties including principal and other staff, who should do the judging of classroom effectiveness, and whether teachers who do not teach tested subjects should receive awards remain unanswered.
Thus, researchers urge more pilots and experiments and not going to full-blown district wide programs.

Except in Denver where ProComp, a P4P program, blends cash for teachers and schools that raise student performance with rewards for teachers who take national tests that demonstrate increased knowledge and skills. Moreover, teachers’ continued success at being evaluated, and working in difficult settings are linked to cash rewards. Three elements in the design mark ProComp as unique. The Denver teachers union and management teams worked closely together in designing and implementing the plan. Teachers volunteered to be in pilot ventures before it went district-wide. Finally, voters agreed to raise their taxes in 2005 to make ProComp district-wide for nine years.

In a bull market for P4P, where caveat emptor is the prevailing wisdom, ProComp offers a far better example for buyers than the pathetic record of pay-for-performance plans.

1 Comment

Filed under school reform policies

One response to “Pay Teachers for Performance: Caveat Emptor

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful review of this controversial issue. The bull/bear market analogy is instructive. Our recent experience should have us bracing ourselves for a change in fortune….

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