More on Performance Pay. . .

A digital colleague that I admire and respect greatly is Clay Burell, who blogs over at Beyond School.  In response to my recent post about Bill Gates and Merit Pay, Clay wrote:

I had a conversation last week about merit pay, and why I didn’t believe in
it. I said it pissed me off to no end that I _knew_ from all sorts of objective observations that I worked harder and more successfully than many of my colleagues, yet earned nothing more for it – BUT, until a system was implemented that could determine what we mean by ‘merit,’ and avoid causing all of us to teach to tests and thus damage student learning, I was still against it.

What’s the best solution to this dilemma that you’ve thought or read?

This is good stuff, Clay.  The thought that a teacher should embrace performance pay only when the system designed supports responsible teaching really resonates with me.  I’ve written more than once about how my teaching has changed in response to today’s accountability culture and it ain’t pretty.  Supporting alternative compensation models in any system that didn’t consider the consequences that new performance measures have on teaching and learning would be unethical, wouldn’t it.

As far as the best solutions go, I think that Denver’s got it right.  Working with district leaders, Denver’s teacher union developed a system of compensation that is far more complex than most of the solutions that are proposed today.  Called ProComp, Denver’s plan rewards teachers differently for earning professional development units that support the district’s mission and vision, for working in hard to serve schools or hard to staff assignments, for producing results on standardized tests, and for earning satisfactory ratings on evaluations.

What I like the most about Denver’s plan, though, is that teachers have the opportunity to earn additional compensation for meeting two “student growth objectives.”  These are measurable learning targets that teachers write on their own in conjunction with their building leaders.  Then, during the course of the school year, teachers collect evidence demonstrating whether or not students have achieved the goals that teachers set out to reach.

Simple yet powerful, huh?  Reward teachers for systematically reflecting on their practice.  Those are the kinds of behaviors we want to see from every teacher, so let’s incentivize them.

What I also like about Denver’s plan is that teachers have clear avenues for increasing their salaries.  If I’m a young educator who has a passion for earning more, I can decide to go and work in a hard to serve school and add to my compensation.  Likewise, if I’m a new father who is swamped with day to day life as it is, I can cycle out and work in a less demanding school for a few years.

Think about the flexibility that the district builds for itself with Procomp.  Today’s hard to staff subject or hard to serve school is unlikely to be tomorrow’s, right?  With Procomp, Denver can choose what it wants to incentivize and make changes over time.  Doing that with professional development units and credits makes even more sense.  The kinds of knowledge and skills that teachers need to be successful today are going to be far different from the kinds of knowledge and skills that teachers are going to need to be successful tomorrow—-so why not take a shorter term view of how we differentiate salaries and stipends for continuing education?

Does any of this make sense?

I guess what I’m saying is a successful compensation plan has to be flexible for both teachers and taxpayers.  Teachers should be able to make concious choices that can increase their salary—working in incentivized buildings, taking incentivized professional development, collecting data in a systematic way that documents their impact—-and districts should be able to conciously decide the kinds of things that they most want to incentivize in their district.

Today’s compensation systems—based on years of experience and master’s degrees—just plain lack the ability to respond to changing realities.


  1. Clix

    sweber – I’m thinking ‘no’ on 4, simply because the cost of living can vary radically based on where you live. My starting salary makes me QUITE comfortable where I am now, but would be a pittance in NYC or another similarly expensive area.

  2. Mike

    The ultimate problems here are those of available funds and evaluation. Unless we’re going to impose a bell curve like limit on the number of excellent teachers in a given district, funds for bonuses will run short quickly. If, for example, we assume that only 10% of the teachers in a given district will be truly excellent in a given year what happens when 12.3% of teachers are excellent one year?
    This leads to the second problem, which is evaluation. Unless each and every teacher, regardless of their discipline, can earn a bonus through their own efforts, any system will be a failure and will not inspire excellence, but anger. Base bonuses on test scores? We cut out every teacher who doesn’t teach a tested subject. We also have to keep in mind the role that students play in such calculations. The best teachers in the world, will not, in some schools, during some years, be able to achieve high test scores while average teachers in better circumstances will come out smelling like roses. We can’t take the tests for the kids.
    In my small district, run by decent people who care about teachers, an incentive program was instituted, with the best of intentions, that essentially rewards everyone in a given building for high test score achievement (and several other factors scored by our state education department). High test scores equal hundreds, even thousands of bonuses. Bonuses–in the one or two hundreds–are available to minor achievements.
    The system is a horrendous disincentive because it does not reward individuals but buildings. It does not differentiate between elementary and secondary education (rather like comparing apples and airplanes), and it rewards those who clearly deserve nothing merely because they happen to work in the right building. In our district the problem is exacerbated by the fact that one elementary school happens to be located in an attendance area of generally wealthy parents. As such, the school maxes the ratings every year, and even janitors in that building receive $500.00 or more, while other schools, making substantial accomplishments considering their circumstances, and employing many excellent teachers, get little or nothing.
    Again, I’m not suggesting that such things should not be done, but we have to keep in mind the difference between communism and capitalism. If you cannot, through your own efforts, earn a bonus through clear, attainable (if difficult) criteria, if your bonus depends upon the efforts or lack of effort) of others or the whims of state agencies, if your bonus depends on the luck of the draw in the students who find themselves in your classes in a given year, if your bonus depend upon which school building you inhabit, excellence is clearly not going to be inspired, sought or rewarded.

  3. John Ferriter Sr

    Here we go again… Many highly effective educators unwilling to take ownership for their incentive system. Y’all gotta just rise up and stick your neck out. Lobby hard for a Denver like system. If you’re not sure about it.. study it some more; but not forever. You folks are the best of the best…. stop trying to what-if this thing to death. Stand together and go for it. Take Wake County NC for example…. Don’t you think that if 9000 teachers supported a Denver-like contract that the Administration would soundly support you since you had finally achieved consensus?? Someone, please….. grass root the movement in a new blog…. grow it big enough so that it cannot be denied…. YOU CAN DO IT!!!

  4. sweber

    Performance incentives or bonus pay for increased student achievement has always been a topic that has challenged my view on the role of professional educators. I have yet to meet a teacher who admits that they entered education for the financial security and the potential to earn additional income/incentives.
    Questions That I Struggle With:
    1) Should teachers receive additional money when their students outperform other students from across the United States?
    2) If a classroom has 30 students and 28 of the students show growth, does this meet the criteria for earning merit pay, or is the goal to increase achievement in 100% of the students?
    3) If we base incentives/merit pay on test scores alone, will we have a well-rounded student who is prepared for the 21st century workforce or will we have a professional test taker?
    3b) Do we really want to reward teachers who focus on drill and kill instruction and curricular reductionism or do we want to reward teacher creativity and teachers who challenge each student to reach new heights?
    4) Should every teacher in the United States receive the same pay scale?
    For example a first year teacher with a Bachelor’s degree would receive the same salary in Dallas, TX, as the first year teacher in Lincoln, AR.
    Comment on Question Four:
    If we want high-quality teachers in every classroom, then it seems like the United States should offer a competitive salary for teachers in every school district. The current method for paying teachers allows teachers to teach for two years in one district, change districts for more pay (earn Teacher of the Year), change districts again and continue to pursue a higher salary. I would prefer to see a competitive salary for teachers in all 50 states. I am in favor of this plan, but I still cannot support merit pay or teacher incentives (not because teachers should not receive a bonus or rewards, but because of the questions that I posed in this blog).