PDQ: Pretty Darn Quick Blog (retired)

Is Performance Pay its own Worse Enemy?


Editorial by Kate Walsh

The most serious obstacle standing in the way of genuine reform of teacher compensation is probably not opposition from teacher unions. As illogical as this is going to sound, what may defeat pay reform is actually our unbridled enthusiasm for performance pay.

Performance pay has proven to be inordinately compelling to people not used to paying much attention to education issues, including politicians. While there are plenty of steps the nation could take to improve the quality of the nation's teachers, (see our State Teacher Policy Yearbook ) the prospect of pay reform is what people want to talk about. Performance pay is to teacher quality as Angelina Jolie is to the global poverty movement.

Don't misunderstand me. Politicians aren't wrong to be so interested in performance pay. I for one am well versed in Jolie's latest adoption. In fact many politicians have shown a lot of courage calling for performance pay. It offers tremendous promise for attracting and keeping the talent the profession needs.

The problem with performance pay is that currently it is easier to do it poorly than to do it well--as the city of Houston, among others, can attest. And each time that states or districts do it poorly, we hand opponents a victory, giving them all the evidence they need to defend the status quo.

While the press could write any number of stories about how unfair the current system of teacher pay is, it doesn't--because the uniform salary schedule isn't news. There are superstars leaving the profession every day, frustrated with their inability to earn the pay that recognizes their successes, but their leaving isn't news either.

In contrast, every time a performance pay experiment fails, it's a news story. Just look at the damage done by the Houston Chronicle when it insisted on publishing the name of every teacher in the district who received a pay bonus--allowing the public to serve as the judge and jury on a first-time effort, however flawed.

The National Council on Teacher Quality has joined forces with a number of other groups that are also worried about premature and ill-advised efforts, laying out some important first principles for adopting compensation reform. The white paper produced by this group describes quite nicely how to navigate some of the perils of trying performance pay, with many lessons learned the hard way.

While this paper provides important guidance, it also reveals how little we still know and how few proven models there are to emulate. There's Denver. There's TAP. There are many variations on a theme in Florida and Minnesota. They are all helping us learn more, some what to do, some what not to do.

There is a reform model that the National Association of Independent Schools is promoting and which a number of public school districts are also experimenting with in some fashion. In this model, the school board allocates an overall percentage increase towards salaries each year, but the school principal or administrative team is given a fair amount of discretion to distribute the majority of the funds. Out of a six percent increase, for example, two percent might be allocated to automatic cost of living increases, but the school principal (or administrative team) would also decide how to distribute an additional two percent for individual "pay for performance" bonuses and yet another two percent for strong school-wide performance.

I like this idea for its simplicity. It rewards individuals and the group and gives school leadership more authority over who gets raises, rather than relying on complicated state or district formulas to do so. It's fair: built on a foundation of goals that teachers help to set and which have been widely communicated. It's also relatively predictable because it would be a fixed part of the annual budget--though even so, it's easy to imagine it being slashed by a district making cuts to balance its budget, but that's an unsolvable problem.

While this model provides a great solution for most teachers, it still comes up somewhat short in one critical area: It does not accommodate the needs of the superstar teachers. Annual bonuses, often too small and subject to legislative and school board whims, are not what it will take to retain exceptional teachers.

For the superstars, we might look to the university structure for another effective model: endowed chairs. Applied to public PK -12 settings, these would be highly compensated chairs for which a teacher could be nominated by a school principal, colleagues, or even parents, but with the condition that student learning must be the preponderant criterion for the honor.

These chairs would not be awarded through "self-nomination," a process that inevitably leads to months of hard labor to prove one's worth (as we learned from the National Board process) and which exceptional teachers in high poverty schools do not have time to do. Funding for these chairs would not be subject to the whims of annual bonus systems that are too easily cut when times get tough, but would be permanent positions (with an 'out' for the district should the teacher fail to provide solid performance). The number of chairs would have no relation to the number of schools; a single school might have one or more chairs, or none. The number of chairs would be a factor of what the district could afford--by means of public or private funds.

The impact of endowing chairs across school districts holds some of the same appeal as the National Board, but maximizes the positives that it brings to the table. It also accomplishes what no existing performance plan has solved: accommodating exceptional talent, not just good teaching. It would not, however, do away with the need for still having in place a good performance pay plan, available to all teachers, on an individual or school-wide basis. The two approaches--rewarding the very best as well as the good--need to go hand in hand.

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