Teachers as Performers and Pay-4-Performance Plans*

Teaching makes teachers into classroom actors. But their classroom performance is thoroughly divorced from the reform du-jour of “Pay-4-Performance.” These schemes call for teachers to be evaluated and paid, in part, on the basis of their students’ test scores. I want to unpack the idea that “good” teaching is, in part, artistic performance  and the ways that “Pay-4-Performance” plans strangle that notion.

First, classroom performance. I begin with the two imperatives facing all teachers whether they teach high school physics, middle school social studies, or kindergarten on Cleveland’s East Side or in Beverly Hills: know your subject (the academic role) and know your students (the emotional role). These competing demands upon teachers require both distance from students (the academic role) and closeness to students (the emotional role).

In teaching first graders to read, 9th grade Algebra or Advanced Placement courses, teachers must convey knowledge and cultivate skills of students. Then they have to judge the degree to which students achieve mastery of each. Evaluating achievement requires social distance in treating all students the same in applying criteria –even if you admire a hard-working, serious student who fails key tests.

But teachers are also expected to get close to students.  In university departments of education and in professional development sessions, teachers are urged to know their students as individuals, their background, interests, shortcomings and strengths.

Why? Because that personal knowledge will help the teacher draw students into learning what the teacher wants to teach. In displaying sincere interest in students, bonds of affection grow between many (but not all) teachers and their charges.  The relationship, the emotional ties between a teacher and her students, then, becomes the foundation for learning.

Balancing these competing roles, however, is hard to do. Many teachers only embrace the academic role: “My job is to teach U.S. history; my job is not to befriend my students.” Other teachers clasp the emotional role to their heart wanting so much to be friends with students  that they whisper to themselves: “Like me and you will like what I teach.” Finding the right mix is difficult; just ask any small high school teacher who is also an “advisor” to her students.

But there are many teachers, those I would call “good,” who balance these competing roles artfully by developing a classroom persona that is distinct and real to students. Their voices, gestures, clothes, verbal tics–all are part of the performance. They improvise when the unpredictable occurs in a lesson.They blend the academic and emotional roles into a mix that appeals to and prods students at the same time. And students who can smell a fake instantaneously come to appreciate the performance.

Some Hollywood films portray teachers’ nimble finessing of two demanding roles in Jaime Escalante (“Stand and Deliver“) and LouAnne Johnson (“Dangerous Minds).

Beyond Hollywood, there are tens of thousands unheralded teachers who perform artistically in their classrooms combining both roles into unforgettable performances year in and year out. Students remember such teachers for the rest of their lives.

Yet once these artists leave the 900 square feet classroom stage each day they shed their teaching persona and take care of their families, do chores, see friends, and other tasks that fill their non-school lives. The sociological truism that teaching does something to the teacher applies to these performers as they adopt persona nine-to-three and then drop the roles as they move back and forth between civilian life and the classroom.

Now turn to the now fashionable Pay-4-Performance plans among “no excuses” reformers. Keep in mind that such plans are part of a long tradition among efficiency-driven reformers stretching back a century when merit pay, classroom evaluation checklists, and planned curricula were initially introduced by educational experts to engineer a more efficient and effective teacher corps. One of those “educational engineers,” Franklin Bobbitt, said: “Teachers cannot be permitted to follow caprice in method. When a method is clearly superior to all other methods has been discovered, it alone can be employed.” That was 1913.

That tradition of seeking efficient ways to engineer teaching continues with “Pay-4-Performance” plans that use standardized test scores as the gold standard to evaluate and pay for “effective” teaching. These tests privilege facts over concepts and recall over thinking. They narrow effectiveness to what is tested.  Once implemented, these plans make it even harder for teachers to balance the academic and emotional roles they must perform since the heavy emphasis on test scores elevates the teacher’s academic role over the emotional one, the glue binding students to the teacher and learning. For those many teachers who have created classroom persona that helps students learn many things, few of which ever become multiple choice items on standardized tests, “Pay-4-Performance” strangles those daily artistic performances that cement teacher-student bonds, make deep learning possible, and imprint teachers into students’ memories forever.

*A chapter on teaching in David Labaree, Someone Has To Fail inspired this post.



Filed under how teachers teach

15 responses to “Teachers as Performers and Pay-4-Performance Plans*

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  2. Steve Davis

    E.g., getting a student to pick up a book and read it as outside reading without coercion (grades, reading logs, etc.) vs. a short and long term goal to raise standard 1.1 by x%. The former is authentic and deep learning while the later is contrived and superficial. Because you can’t bottle that magic and apply it to every student like a tonic, it’s deemed hocus-pocas and ridiculed. Because there was no “plan” and there is no “follow through” or “assessment.” I guess that student may just as well have not read that book. And so it goes.

  3. Steve Davis

    “…while the later is contrived and superficial.”
    Should read, “…while the latter is contrived and superficial.

    So if I want to teach the difference between former and latter do I have to establish a baseline, practice and practice some more and assess? I don’t think you can do that for the volume of material that is expected to be covered. Not to mention the fact that there is little agreement about what should be taught or how. Later and latter: never seen that one on a standardized test, but it sure seems to pop up from academics and in academic texts. Where did those folks learn it, if it wasn’t on the test?

  4. Cal

    the former is authentic and deep learning while the later is contrived and superficial.

    As someone who watched kids go through the motions to “read” books outside of class, let me assure you that mandatory “outside reading” is about as contrived and superficial as it gets.

    Why do people put so much value on reading for fun, anyway? Knowing how to read, good. Having strong content knowledge, good. Liking to read? Who cares? I get a bit tired of people insisting that education means imparting a shared value system.

    ecause that personal knowledge will help the teacher draw students into learning what the teacher wants to teach. In displaying sincere interest in students, bonds of affection grow between many (but not all) teachers and their charges. The relationship, the emotional ties between a teacher and her students, then, becomes the foundation for learning.

    How much evidence is there for this, though? If having teachers who cared and shared mattered, then charter schools would have ended the achievement gap, rather than ambiguously chipped away at it, once you stop arguing about attrition and selection bias. Meanwhile, surburban kids often cordially hate their teachers but do just fine educationally.

    Labaree mentioned the acquired persona in his other book, The Trouble with Ed Schools, too. As a teacher, I find I have multiple personas. My “usual” personal is a fun, loose, popular teacher who loves her kids and whose kids love her.

    But teach algebra to kids who have failed it from one to three times, to kids who hate school and everything about it, who know how to game the system and who actively seek to get teachers in trouble, and the persona has to go through adjustments. I’m not strict and mean–my values and teaching standards are the same, but I’m nowhere near as fun, and nowhere near as funny. I can’t be. I have to teach algebra to kids who have failed in math multiple times, who are starting algebra despite not knowing their multiplication tables or fractions (much less negative numbers) and, ideally, prepare them for two more years of math.

    And I’m pretty good at it. But not because I’m fun or the kids like me, but because I make sure they know that I know this is difficult stuff. That I don’t expect them to like algebra, but that I can, if they work, make them better at it. They will feel better with every bit of added competence. And they will graduate.

    That’s an entirely different persona. It’s nowhere near as fun. And it’s not helped by the fact that teachers get no support at removing or reducing the students who refuse this offer of help, so they can focus on the ones who want to take them up on it.

    Teaching kids with low skills in incredibly difficult. Teaching kids with low skills while also teaching kids with mid-level and high skills is ludicrous, in no small part because the personas required are quite different. But that’s what the state of California prefers, and the ed school at Stanford insists is the best method.

    • larrycuban

      Dear Cal,
      A few items in your comment jumped out at me. One was your question about evidence–“How much evidence is there for this, though? If having teachers who cared and shared mattered….” You are correct there is not much evidence for the emotional role except that it is an imperative built into all people-serving professions (medicine, law, ministry, social work, etc.) The ongoing debate among physicians about “bedside manner” and listening is a variation of the emotional role that teachers are expected (and expect of themselves to a degree) to perform. As an imperative, buttressed by the structures of age-graded schools and the training that teachers have received in psychology and teacher education, it is viewed as essential. Evidence or not.

      The other item was your superb example of how the context of a class can change your persona. Teaching kids who have repeatedly failed algebra has, in your words, shifted your persona. Thanks so much for making that point.

      • Cal

        Thanks for your kind words.

        I agree that the obligation to present a caring, sharing front is viewed as essential, and of course, I don’t really suggest that teachers go around sneering “I don’t care how you do, punk!”

        However, surveys have shown that low income parents of low-achieving students are happier with charter schools than similar parents of same in public schools–even when the kids in public schools are doing better. In other words, being surrounded by “the right kids” and administered by caring teachers is enough, even when results aren’t good. Meanwhile, the public schools might be harried and not able to track any kid, but are (in some cases) providing a better education.

        It’s just worth remembering that some elements seem axiomatic–but aren’t always. Without resorting to “who cares how you do, punk?”

        The shift in persona is particularly difficult when, as I said, the teacher is responsible for a wide range of achievements in one classroom. I often find myself practically morphing as I move from one table of high-achieving students working on challenge assignments because they’ve mastered the curriculum for that day, to a table of students who are throwing paper wads and shout rudely at me when I ask them if they have anything done.

  5. Steve Davis


    I agree that “mandatory “outside reading” is about as contrived and superficial as it gets.” That’s why I said there can’t be any coercion; therefore, it’s not mandatory that they read outside. Here’s where the teacher’s persona and personal connections with students comes in. A teacher has to know a bit about a student to toss them the right book that they will willingly go home and read without coercion. I don’t advocate outside reading for fun. Rather, I advocate outside reading because connecting students with content that they care about will get them to read, which will increase their vocabularies and comprehension, which will in turn get them to read more. This will hopefully translate into an increased ability to acquire content knowledge. And no, there’s no evidence for this, just common sense and experience.

    • Steve Davis


      My apologies for my tone when I said, “And no, there’s no evidence for this, just common sense and experience.” Got too passionate. I don’t want to contribute to the baseless/aimless arguing that goes on over most issues.

      Research and evidence has its place. It’s just that there’s so much contradictory evidence about instruction in general and disagreements over methodological validity that there seems to be little consensus about what works to engage students and improve academic performance.

      I don’t know of any solid evidence that standing outside of the classroom to greet students does any good. But I do it because people I respect said that’s what good teachers do. My experience validates its usefulness so I do it religiously. If I didn’t greet students this way I probably wouldn’t really know my students because once the bell rings, it’s lock-step academic routine. Students are willing to tell you things in the hallway that they will not say in the classroom surrounded by their peers. Does standing by the door make a difference? I don’t know. It’s not on the test.

  6. Cal


    Many times, what seems obvious by “common sense and experience” is not quite that obvious. We’ve spent billions on failed educational experiments precisely because everyone relies on a good story in exchange for proof.

    For example, I’ve been told time and again that standing outside the door is “what good teachers do” and honestly, I can’t see it. I’m in the classroom when the bell rings, the warmup’s ready to go, and I’m herding cattle, getting the kids in their desks, paper out, copying down the warmup. I know my kids quite well–which are athletes, which ones have failed this class before, which ones have trouble getting to class on time, and so on. Saying “hi” outside the door doesn’t add to that knowledge. And of course, it doesn’t do any harm, either.

    What strikes me is how utterly bizarre teacher practices are sometimes, that how the teacher greets the students is an important pedagogical practice, rather than something that is utterly irrelevant to outcomes.

    On reading: what’s important is that students have the vocabulary and content knowledge to understand what they read. If students don’t have the appropriate vocab and content knowledge, they have poor reading skills. Little evidence suggests that increased reading time will improve student reading scores, once their poor comprehension is established. As I understand it, the major debate in reading comprehension now is whether vocabulary knowledge alone determines reading comprehension, or vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension are both determined by a third factor–and few people argue that increased reading time is that third factor. At this point, I’m pretty sure the preponderance of evidence says that increased reading time does not improve reading comprehension–or at the very least, this link is tenuous.

    That doesn’t stop teachers, parents, and pundits from yammering endlessly about the value of reading. It’s a moral judgment, not an educational practice. (I am not saying you yammer endlessly; I’m talking about the general tone of the discussion).

    So no, I do expect teachers to care about evidence–and, of course, the quality of that evidence. Much ed-school produced research is dreadful. Teachers don’t have to jump every time research points a new direction, but teachers should care about research, and should seek out what has often been well-established for years but ignored by the education industry because it’s politically unpopular.

  7. Steve Davis

    I don’t put a lot of stock in the research below as I could just as easily find a study that contradicts it or I could quibble with their methodology or the interpretation of their findings. But, it is research.

    Effects of Teacher Greetings on Student On-task Behavior
    R Allan Allday and Kerri Pakurar


    “A multiple baseline design across participants was used to determine how teacher greetings affected on-task behavior of 3 middle school students with problem behaviors. Momentary time sampling was used to measure on-task behavior during the first 10 min of class. Teacher greetings produced increases in students’ on-task behavior from a mean of 45% in baseline to a mean of 72% during the intervention phase. Teacher greetings represent an antecedent manipulation that can easily be implemented in classrooms to improve students’ on-task behavior.”

  8. Steve Davis

    It’s proving more difficult than I thought to find research that negates the notion that greeting students at the door has positive effects. I will keep looking, lest I might engage in attribution bias.

  9. Steve Davis

    On reading

    How the Amount of Time Spent on Independent Reading Affects Reading Achievement:
    A Response to the National Reading Panel
    Yi-Chen Wu S. Jay Samuels
    Department of Educational Psychology
    University of Minnesota

    Click to access time_spent_on_reading.pdf

    “Data analysis found that more time spent reading had a significant effect on achievement compared to a control condition where less time was allocated for
    independent reading. In addition, results found that poor readers showed significantly
    greater gain in word recognition and vocabulary than good readers. Third grade showed greater gain in comprehension than fifth grade. Furthermore, the results also showed that poor readers tended to have greater gains in vocabulary with 15 minutes of reading, but they had better gains on reading comprehension with 40 minutes of reading.”

    “In conclusion, this experimental study showed that time spent
    reading independently has a positive impact on reading achievement.”

  10. Cal


    We could get boring on discussing research, of course, but your first study is exactly the kind of thing I was referring to when I mentioned education research. It has a sample size of three. THREE! That’s the best they could do? Can we laugh now? How did that get published?

    On the reading research, I think it’s pretty clear that the study supports my own comments. From the intro:

    ““With regard to the efficacy of having students engager in independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback, the Panel was unable to find a positive relationship
    between programs and instruction that encourage large amounts of independent reading
    and improvements in reading achievement, including fluency. In other words, even
    though encouraging students to read more is intuitively appealing, there is still not
    sufficient research evidence obtained from studies of high methodological quality to
    support the idea that such efforts reliably increase how much read or that such programs
    result in improved reading skills. Given the extensive use of these techniques, it is
    important that such research be conducted.”

    In other words, just as I said, the National Reading Panel came out and said that there’s no support for the notion that more reading = better readers.

    This study was commissioned specifically to provide evidence in response to this challenge, yet its findings say clearly that below average readers saw no improvement with increased reading time.

    “One might speculate why the differences in the amount of time spent reading had
    a positive affect for the higher ability student but not for the lower ability students. It is
    possible that for the lower ability students, even though the books they read were
    appropriate for their reading ability, independent reading was sufficiently difficult that it
    affected their attention span. In essence, for the low ability students, 15 minutes of
    independent reading was appropriate for them, whereas the 40-minute time slot was too
    long. Consequently, the added reading time did not do any good for students with low

    reading ability. In support this explanation as to why the 15-minute time slot is more
    advantageous, Felmlee and Eder’s (1983) study found that students who were in a lowability
    group had a short attention span. Also, there is evidence that students who have
    lower achievement ability cannot maintain attention for as long as their peers who have
    higher achievement (Soli & Devine, 1976). Thus, for this study, 15-minutes may have
    been the limit of low ability students’ attention span. In conclusion, one might say that
    more is not necessary better for this particular group.”

    In other words, for below average readers, they proved exactly the opposite of what they were working to establish.

    And overall, their results weren’t terribly exciting:

    “We do not have a simple answer regarding to the question of how the amount of
    time spent on reading affects reading achievement because we failed to found a main
    effect for time (i.e. 15 minutes vs. 40minutes).”

    Which again, goes exactly to my point. We don’t have any solid data that says more reading makes good readers, that reading is essential to improving comprehension, and so on. Yet teachers and parents go on all the time about how important outside reading is. It is to weep.

    Incidentally, I have a credential in English and history and last year taught humanities. The class curriculum called for 2o minutes SSR at the beginning of each class (out of 100 minutes) and I watched for a semester as the kids stared at books they could care less about. In the second semester, I bought a few reading and vocabulary workbooks, made a bunch of copies, and gave the students reading assignments based on their abilities.

    It was extremely successful, although I don’t have any data proving reading scores advanced. But the kids were engaged, learning new vocabulary words, increasing their content knowledge at their own level, and actually exercising their verbal abilities for 20 minutes a day, rather than staring at a book in which they had no interest. Score one for “worksheets”, at least in my own personal anecdata.

    I would much rather have given the kids with weak reading skills a research-backed program. However, my school, like many schools, was convinced that unstructured “choice-based”, reading would do the trick. So I was on my own when I decided to disobey that wisdom.

  11. Steve Davis


    I thank you for making me question my assumptions. Admittedly, not all research is good research. I haven’t satisfied my curiosity about the topics of greeting students at the door and encouraging outside reading. It will take a while to access some better sources and reflect more. I am willing to entertain the idea that neither practice actually produces positive results. If there was really a consensus on any of the research, then that research would be implemented and all of our educational woes would be solved.

    Nevertheless, I will be outside my door at 7:45 a.m. and I will take the students to the library for 15 min. on Friday. Just seems like good teaching, even if it’s not successful teaching. I can’t resist the coup of getting a disengaged student to open up a book. Sure “seems” like they are learning “something.”

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