Performance Pay Will Kill Our Schools

Ever since the board of the Houston Independent School District voted to use standardized test scores to reward and punish teachers, I’ve been wrapped in a dark, dark funk. 

I guess I can’t really blame HISD.  After all, they’re just one of many educational organizations (see here, here and here) influenced by states that are scrambling to grab some of the billions of dollars made available to schools through Race to the Top grants—which must all include redesigned teacher compensation and evaluation plans. 

Obama made ‘em do it. 

Now, I’ve got a billion complaints with any state and/or district that ties teacher compensation to standardized test scores—and I’ve written about them more than once.  My greatest concern, though, has always been the impact that an undue emphasis on testing will have on the instructional practices in our classrooms.

I feel like a bit of an expert, considering that I’ve spent the past 16 years teaching a tested subject to sixth graders.  I’m almost ashamed of the way that my instruction has changed over time in response to testing pressures.  I’ve gone from being a guy whose classroom was defined by higher level learning opportunities—Socratic seminars, independent studies, open-ended questions—to a guy who follows a set of scripted lessons pretty closely.

Why did I buckle?  Because each year, I’m given an “effectiveness index,” a metric that our district generates that allows comparisons between the test scores of students in different classes across buildings.  While my effectiveness index doesn’t stink—my students are making expected growth—it has been the lowest on the hallway for as long as I can remember.

The tension between what I’m actually doing in my classroom and what I think I should be doing in my classroom has gotten to be almost unbearable.  I don’t believe that I’m preparing my students to be successful in a world driven by innovation and creativity, but the ONLY tangible indicator of my performance—standardized test scores—says that my students are not as “accomplished” as students in other classrooms in our school and district.

If I worked in Houston, they’d be showing me the door!

What makes me laugh is that while judging teachers based on standardized test scores is seen as a long-needed innovation in education, business leaders are starting to recognize that a never-ending focus on measurable results can have disastrous consequences. 

Take Roger Martin of the Harvard Business Review who recently argued that number-crunching locks businesses into the prisons of the past:

Analyzing the past, crunching the existing numbers to produce the future can do nothing more than extrapolate the future from the past. So if you stick to measuring what you can already measure, you cannot create a future that is different than the past.

For that to work out at all well for any institution making its decisions on that extrapolation, the future needs to be remarkably similar to the past — or bad things start to happen. If an institution is all geared up for a future that is like the past and the future changes radically, then the institution becomes an anachronism, like a Motorola or GM.

Beautiful, isn’t it?  Comparing our schools to Motorola or GM might actually wake up Crazy Bill Sanders and his “let’s reward teachers based on test scores” crowd, considering how miserably those two organizations failed at adapting to a rapidly changing future. 

Few would argue that the future of schooling is going to be “remarkably similar” to the past, so making important decisions about teacher evaluation and compensation based on nothing more than numbers is a failed policy that will encourage antiquated instructional practices.  We’lI end up with a heaping cheeseload of students that can pass standardized tests, but will those same students be ready to work in a world that values divergent thinking?

Martin goes on to propose a new frame of thought that must find its way into today’s businesses.  He writes:

We need to get away from all those old sayings about measurement and management, and in that spirit I'd like to propose a new wisdom: "If you can't imagine it, you will never create it." The future is about imagination, not measurement. To imagine a future, one has to look beyond the measurable variables, beyond what can be proven with past data.

What I wouldn’t give to work in a world that rewarded teachers for innovative attempts to imagine and to create new learning environments.  I’d have my kids solving complex, open-ended problems with one another.  We’d be working to find solutions to global challenges with peers on other continents.  Independent projects focused on areas of deep personal interest would serve as the vehicle for teaching basic skills.

Instead, I’ll probably remain stuck in a backwards professional culture convinced by nothing more than numbers for the rest of my career.  The momentum to reward or punish teachers and schools is just too great for states to resist, isn’t it?

The best part of the“we gotta punish ‘em to get ‘em to work harder” culture is that science has shown time and again that IT JUST WON’T WORK—for teachers or for students—a fact that Daniel Pink pointed out in a recent interview with the Public School Insights blog.

Pink wrote:

There is 40 years of science that says that for complex, conceptual, creative tasks—the sort of things that most white-collar workers are doing now that the more simple routine work can be offshore or automated—carrot and stick motivators don't work. Or I should say they rarely work, and they often do harm. And this is not even close in the field of science.

So what you have now is this gap between what science knows about motivation—which is that carrot and stick motivators work in a narrow band of circumstances and that if you really want high-performance on more creative conceptual tasks you have to have a different operating system built more on our internal drive do interesting things and to do something that matters.

Imagine that:  One of the most noted thinkers in the world today believes that education—which is perhaps the MOST complex, conceptual and creative task—might actually be HARMED by the kinds of teacher evaluation plans that states are churning out like too much sour butter in their race to the top. 

Pink goes on to address pay for performance plans directly:

Truth be told, until I looked at the research—and there is really 40 years of research on the science of motivation—I actually thought performance pay for teachers was a good idea. I was for it. Then I read the science, and I said, “No, I am not for this.” Because what is pretty clear is that it is a very problematic thing to get right…

The way that money is most effective as a motivator is to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they are not focused on money, but they are focused on doing their job well. My experience has been that 85% of teachers out there just want teach and do right by kids. If you raise their base salaries and give them some autonomy, they’ll do that.

If you also give either building principals or superintendents the ability to get rid of—and I am just estimating here—the 10% or 15% of teachers, like the 10% or 15% of any profession, who are duds, I think that is a simpler solution. It is not perfect, but it has far less collateral damage than tying [pay] to standardized test scores or doing these elaborate performance measurements.

Can I get an AMEN from the choir, please?  And can I get it before we stumble down yet another wrong path that will leave our schools open for still more criticism and scorn?

Businesses are starting to turn away from performance pay, committed to creating the kinds of intrinsically motivat
ing work environments that attract the most accomplished employees, produce the kinds of tangible results that matter in knowledge-driven professions, and allow for rapid adaptation in an ever-changing world. 

When will schools do the same?

15 thoughts on “Performance Pay Will Kill Our Schools

  1. Malucille

    K. Borden,
    Here is a rant I wrote a couple years ago, in which I explain a method by which teacher could be compensated in a fair way for the inequality of their level of work.
    Please ignore the tone: I was annoyed at the time at how difficult it seemed to be to get the idea across. Now I am inured.
    “The inequality of merit-based pay for teachers.
    Let me be straight up with you: I’m a high-school teacher. I think merit-based pay would be a great idea! I get burned every time I see or hear of a teacher who isn’t pulling his or her weight—fortunately I know of extremely few. And I would love to get more pay–I only get paid ten months of every year, so it would be great to be able to earn more. Those summer months can be hard. I can, of course, choose to have my pay spread over all twelve months, but that still doesn’t give me a greater pay; or I can do what many others do: work during the summer too. This seems reasonable, since many people think we don’t work long days during the school year anyway!
    Let me tell you something else: I’m one of the good teachers–that is, if you mean I spend hours preparing each day’s lesson; then another chunk grading what I received today; many weeks it amounts to over 60 hours. If it means students enjoy coming into my classroom; think I’m fair; think I teach well; thank me regularly each year for what they have learned; and sign up for another year. Maybe it’s just because I teach a college-bound elective and so get the “best’ students; the best-behaved, most motivated and most hard-working. All I know is that I love to teach; I love my students and am passionate about my subject.
    Not only that, but I teach at a school where I could point at few teachers who are not as hard-working as I am; who don’t give extra hours to connect with students, whether by helping run a club or coaching a sport, or teaching a performance elective such as music or drama. Most of us spend much beyond the school-day on our jobs. And we all teach within our field; we all have majored at least in our subject and most of us have masters.
    Yet I don’t think it would be possible to reward us equitably for all this hard work! Why not? Because students are not widgets. We all have students who literally choose to fail; who only do just enough to get a D- in spite of cajoling, entreating, motivational speeches and the threat of failure. Frequently, the few students who fail my class, do so not for lack of available tutoring—even during the school day—but because the minute they go out the door, nothing else ever gets done: no homework, no studying; it’s like they wipe their shoes off at the door. These are students who have chosen my subject, an elective, and who participate with pleasure during the class itself. Sometimes it is beyond the student’s choice: I have one student who literally has to work 35 hours a week to feed herself. She would otherwise be an A student. She has a D- in my class because she can’t do all the work. Sometimes a student may have been put in a class the teacher sees is too hard for them, but the parent (who thinks his/her child is wonderful) has signed a waiver for him/her to enter the class, and that child just continues to struggle. Is it fair to judge me by this?
    Then there is the problem that some of us teach honors or Advanced Placement classes and others teach the lower-level classes. Should we be equally judged by the pass-rate of our students on a national test? Isn’t that unfair for those who teach general classes? Not only that, but some of us don’t teach classes that are ever nationally tested–so how would we determine what our merit is? There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. Special education teachers labor with a small number of students, but none of the rest of us envy them: there is a very high turnover of special-ed teachers. How should they be measured to get their merit-pay?
    Let’s face it, the business model so touted does not work for education: we are not salespeople who are each trying to sell our particular brand to a crowd of people who all have some money to spend. Our students are not paid to sit and learn, they are required by law to be there and their parents and society want them to do what is a very tiring and long job (without pay)–a job that lasts twelve years and for which the reward is to be able to work at something else which will hopefully pay rewardingly! We teachers are not managers offering incentives to adults with responsibilities and dependents. All we can offer is that hard work gets you good grades which get you a better job at which you will eventually earn more! The fact that learning itself is a pleasure does help tremendously in general, but there are always some students who have not reached this point. Intrinsic discipline takes years and great care on the part of parents and teachers to form in any child. And of course, some develop more slowly than others.
    The only fair solution I can see is to pay according to what we actually can be seen and measured to be doing. In other words, if I have more students in my class than another teacher, I am grading more papers, so that can be counted. If I teach more courses, that means more preparation than someone who teaches the same course five times a day, so that also can be counted. If I teach English or History, where many essays are required and therefore the grading takes me longer, that should count. If I am teaching a class that requires more preparation because more ground is covered in each period, that could be measured. If I am teaching very difficult students who require constant behavioral modification, then certainly that should be important. All of these variables could conceivably be given a multiplying factor (similar to the hourly Blue Book used for mechanics, or the base price of a dental filling for insurance, for instance) and then they could be multiplied against base-pay. Seniority should count, but could be simply one factor amongst all these others. This would be a more fair way to compensate teachers than the current one, where no matter what you teach or how long you spend, you get the same as the next person down the hall. It would truly be merit-based pay.
    But I don’t think this is what the proponents of “merit-based” pay mean, do they? Often they want a quick political solution to what newspapers keep trumpeting is a huge problem. Using a business model and business jargon to “solve” education is a kind of sleight of hand. Education is not really a business: it’s an apprenticeship.
    Here are some verifiable facts for you to chew over. California is 49th in terms of spending on any given student. California has the second-highest number of English as second language students in the nation (37%). Teachers are being paid the SAME pay as they were in 1970, when adjusted for inflation. YET, our students are performing at or above the national standard on BOTH math and verbal national tests. So, is it the teachers who need fixing? I think we’re doing a very fine job with very little help, thank you very much! Every teacher in California, take a bow!
    And you’re welcome.

  2. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    I wouldn’t favor a pay system based solely on standardized test results. When TLN highlighted the report you linked I read it, and appreciated that it thoughtfully attempted to direct pay structures toward goals. It deserves more traction than it has received.
    Please correct me if I am way off base but… factor that has long disturbed me about the way teachers are compensated is the underlying assumption that all teachers largely have the same “job”.
    The skill set, temperament, training, goal and so forth to teach kindergarten is far different than that to teach math to 6th graders or AP History or Special Education. I understand certifications are often achieved for various grade levels/subject, the Praxis and so forth. But, in the end you have a massive workforce (lots of fish/big pond) in which the values of the roles filled have been largely equalized artificially in terms of compensation.
    As you have pointed out, the “job” of teaching the same subject at the same grade level may be far different at one school than at another.
    And yet, we apply largely the same incentives, compensation structures and expectations over a huge workforce.
    I can’t help but wonder if one reason devising teacher pay plans falls back to longevity or test scores so often in discourse, is that it allows a broad brush avoiding making tough value judgments.
    I doubt I have managed to express well the thought I am trying to share.
    How bout this snow?

  3. Bill Ferriter

    K Borden wrote:
    How competitive is public school teaching? Are schools each vying against each other to staff each spot with the most successful personnel available? Do the most successful teachers find it easier to make employment choices?
    These are all great questions, K, that policymakers overlook! I always laugh when they talk about drumming out low performers, wondering who exactly they’re going to replace them with.
    While there is more of a demand for teaching positions right now than ever before—high unemployment rates will do that to ya—generally there’s not exactly a line of super-qualified people in the HR offices of our districts.
    Compounding this problem is the fact that many of the lowest performing teachers end up working in the highest need schools. It’s only natural that accomplished teachers—who good principals seek out—move to suburban, affluent buildings. The work is easier.
    So when the HISD smackdown begins, you’re likely to see dozens of openings in the hardest schools, which will be filled by under-qualified teachers that can’t get hired on anywhere else.
    An over generalization? Sure. There are a small handful of GREAT teachers who are drawn to work in the most challenging buildings.
    But definitely not a stretch. Study after study has shown that teacher quality gaps between suburban and high poverty schools are huge. Which means coercive accountability programs are only going to have a greater effect on poor schools than they do on suburban buildings.
    The cycle continues.
    K Borden also wrote:
    As I have written before, teachers need to lead in defining what accountability should look like in their very public jobs.
    Here’s the thing, K: We HAVE taken the lead in defining what accountability and compensation can look like! The best example is a professional compensation report that I helped to craft with a group of 20 other accomplished teachers from around America:
    Do you think that our proposals had any impact?
    Nope. In fact, while the report is really good—and includes the use of standardized test scores as one part of the evaluation of teachers—-it gained little traction.
    That’s where your argument falls short. It’s not that teachers don’t want to raise their voices and have input. It’s that we don’t hold the political reins. We can make recommendations until we’re blue in the face. Real decisions are still made by people who rarely have first-hand classroom experience.
    And that’s frightening.
    Any of this make sense?

  4. Susan

    I attended a Leadership class in my district last night in which two principals in the district outlined what their schools are doing to meet AYP. One of the schools is considered “very at-risk” with 86% free and reduced lunch. All they teach is reading and math with a small amount of writing. NO science or social studies, or “fluff” as the principal called it. So let’s see…….kids with little background knowledge and little likelihood of being exposed to the natural world and to history are given no chance to learn about those things in school? That’s where I want my country’s future leaders coming from! I asked why they couldn’t use science and social studies content to teach reading strategies and was told, “Because they are fluff.” I left the class sick to my stomach. Leadership? If you want to be a so-called leader in this district you better be behind the data, because that’s ALL that matters. I don’t want our world’s future leaders to be great test-takers, I want them to be great problem-solvers; too bad that’s not what we’re helping them learn how to do. If we think the world is messed up now, wait till these kids take over!

  5. K. Borden

    Yet another cosmic alignment, after reading your post and the links to the HSID article and Mr. Pinks interview, the kiddo asked if she might sit down with my calendar/planner and take a look. What she wanted was to determine when she might fit in a job(s) to earn money allowing her to make more independent choices.
    We talked as she went through it, and she explained that she wants to begin earning money that she can use to make more autonomous choices (maybe an I-phone, clothing). Sidenote: She had read Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle that morning and had been especially impressed with the observation that the main character found it easier to do other’s work than his own. As she talked, I listened. She was seeking the means to the autonomy Mr. Pink addresses.
    Inspired a bit by what I had just read, I asked her if she would want her chores to be judged for payment solely by the measurable outcomes. For example, what if despite every effort to have a child go to sleep on time she had to report to the parents that he/she didn’t nod off until an hour later than instructed. Her response, she would deserve to be paid for having watched the child, but I might not be the sitter they choose the next time if there is sitter who is able to get them to sleep on time. So then I asked, should you be paid more if every goal is met and the kids tell their parents you are their favorite sitter? Her response, wouldn’t I be the one they would call first for jobs if I did that so I might make more?
    Mr. Pink is correct, when basic needs are met, autonomy becomes a compelling motivator. He didn’t address the competitive market in the interview, but I will be curious to read more and see how he does address it.
    Some questions: How competitive is public school teaching? Are schools each vying against each other to staff each spot with the most successful personnel available? Do the most successful teachers find it easier to make employment choices? How much more would all teachers need to be paid in order to reach that point Mr. Pink describes in the interview as: “The way that money is most effective as a motivator is to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they are not focused on money, but they are focused on doing their job well. “ ?
    Then I think about what I do. I forego income in order to guide a child’s education, at least in part because autonomy is a key feature for both of us in the path we have chosen. Many of the resources we employ are purchased in after tax dollars out of our available resources. We pay to have autonomy. We are constantly glad to do it.
    But, another very real part of what motivates us is improved outcomes on the many goals we have. Those are measured on annual standardized tests, daily assessments formal and informal and on many other results (some clearly measurable, some not). The stakes are high if I fail, the rewards are great if I do well.
    I don’t know how a compensation system can be devised to reflect success and failure in the public schools. Mr. Pink’s recognition that comprehension performance evaluation may be unwieldy and cumbersome to implement is a point well taken. If standardized tests can’t be part of the equation because they negatively impact classroom instruction in public schools, what then? I am concerned the jest of the comments is pay us more and don’t judge us on standardized test data, without alternatives proposed. Just give us autonomy, more pay, and go raise your kids better is not an answer that is going effectively counter the move toward performance pay based on student standardized test results. Especially when the message is if you don’t like it, don’t ask for more autonomy in choosing how your child is educated either, continues.
    As I have written before, teachers need to lead in defining what accountability should look like in their very public jobs.
    Think hard about how comments like “I’m feeling the same tensions you are, and the idea of paying teachers for the measurable learning of their students makes me ill in my stomach” sell.
    A lot to chew on

  6. Andrew B. Watt

    Part of the issue is that performance pay seems like a simple solution to non-educators. To those of us in the game, it’s an appalling way to design reimbursement.
    There’s another problem, though… isn’t the existence of merit pay likely to shift teachers’ goals from teaching students how to be successful learners to gimmicking the test?

  7. Odell Lucas

    I appreciate the thoughts on “Merit Pay” and scripted instruction versus higher order thinking tasks, both make excellent points. I have often wondered if an increaded number of days for instruction would allow time for some scripting mixed with those much needed higher order thinking activities that will prepare students for the world of work.

  8. Beth Novick

    Amen. I too am a good teacher teaching in ways that I do not think are so good. The fear is tangible in our school and district. Behind closed doors teachers continue to differentiate, teach creatively, and protect young people from the opressive ideas of the adults in charge, but our time is running short. Teachers need to unite and speak out loudly against the upcoming policies of this administration.

  9. Dave

    I guess we have to step back and ask “why do non-educators want performance pay? what are they trying to solve, and how else can we solve that (or show that it’s not a problem)?”
    Maybe your last quote from Pink has the solution. If we got rid of the duds, I think that could better solve the problems people want to fix with performance pay.

  10. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Roger,
    Thanks for stopping by the Radical—-but more importantly, thanks for an amazing post about the dangers in using numbers only to drive decisions.
    That’s an issue that is consuming education right now. The idea that data driven decisions are always the best is forcing us into situations where we refuse to imagine and where we reinforce tradition.
    That’s dangerous in a profession dependent on changing to adapt to an entirely new work world!
    Having thoughtful commentary from experts beyond the K12 classroom can help to sway important opinions. For that, I owe you one!
    Be well,

  11. Bill Ferriter

    Matthew K. Tabor wrote:
    This column is puzzling.
    I think you missed the point of the column, Matthew. It had far less to do with Houston and RttT and far more to do with the fact that ANY performance pay plan fails to recognize the science around motivation in knowledge driven industries.
    Houston’s decisions are merely an example of the famously poor “progressive thinking” that is encouraged by RttT grants.

  12. Roger Martin

    Dear Bill:
    Thanks for the plug for the HBR blog. Glad it helps you.
    You might be interested to know that one of my heroes is an education academic, Eliot Eisner. You may know all about Eisner but he is the #1 proponent of qualitative research in education.
    I gave his book, The Enlightened Eye, a plug in a recent column in HBR (in which they ask current article writers to recommend a classic book)
    If you want to see it, the recommendation starts on this page:

  13. Matthew K. Tabor

    This column is puzzling.
    First, HISD is not a state ed department – obviously, it’s the Houston District. You might be able to get away with using a city district to represent a state’s overall policies/attitudes when it’s a tiny, low-population state with a major city that represents the bulk of that population. That isn’t Texas. HISD is HISD, nothing more.
    Second, Texas was 1 of 10 states not to file a Race to the Top application by the deadline. TX Gov. Rick Perry made quite a few headlines by spurning RttT funds. Surely you read about that.
    It’s hard to be influenced by the promise of money you famously rejected [and never applied for]. It’s even harder when you’re a city and RttT is state/federal business.

  14. Dan Callahan

    You saw that yesterday I wrote a blog post
    where I partly talked about how, as a Special Ed teacher, I’m increasingly finding myself working with scripted programming, and the tension between what I’m required to do by my school district and what I want to do with my classroom is widening day by day.
    I also thought that this blog post by Harold Shaw
    did a very nice job of talking about the huge pitfalls involved in merit pay when it comes to Special Education. Individual merit pay will be an even bigger detriment to all teachers interested in working with our most-challenged populations. I have certificates in both general education and special education. When there’s money on the line, I’m going to be a lot more interested in teaching those general education classes.
    Depending on a school’s setup, I know there can be some struggle over who gets to teach the honors classes. I can’t wait to see the civil war that breaks out amongst colleagues when the difference between teaching an honors group and teaching a basic group is thousands of dollars in your pocket. If the awards are competitive, won’t it be wonderful to see colleagues refusing to share their ideas, hoping for an advantage over everybody else? How about the first time a teacher sues a school because they got denied the honors class over the principal’s long-time friend?
    In the midst of the biggest economic meltdown in 70 years, why on earth do people insist that business is something to be emulated? An emphasis on short-term test scores will only do to education what an emphasis on short-term financial results has done to the economy. As middle school teachers, we’re supposed to, in my opinion, take the long view: we need to think about where that kid is going to be in 4,5, or 6 years as they prepare to go to college or get a job. An emphasis on test scores right now does little to help that overall perspective.

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