Op-Ed: Teacher Pay for Performance Is the Elephant in the Classroom

John Kellmayer | February 5, 2019 | Opinion
Compensating teachers for the quality of their teaching has not been discussed much, but administrators now have new assessment tools for evaluating performance

John Kellmayer
There may be no more contentious issue in education than the question of teacher pay for performance. Most recognize the traditional pay schedule, where teachers are paid based on seniority and degree status, is imperfect. However, the discussion of compensating teachers for not only how long they have taught but how well has been limited.

It is the elephant in the room of educational reform. The traditional teacher compensation system began in 1921 in Des Moines, Iowa and Denver, Colorado as an attempt to equalize pay. Prior to the adoption of this system, male teachers were paid more than females, white teachers were paid more than minorities, and high school teachers were paid more than elementary teachers.

As a New Jersey superintendent for 17 years and a principal for 13 years, I estimate that I’ve observed about 2,000 lessons. I believed that I was skilled in differentiating levels of performance based upon observing teachers in practice. However, with the new assessment tools available to school administrators, there is an unprecedented amount of information available upon which to make informed determinations about teacher performance. The question is — what are school leaders to do with this new information and how can the skepticism and resistance to paying teachers for performance be overcome?

Several years ago, I presented to a large group of teachers at a high school that had recently adopted block scheduling, which involves replacing traditional 40- to 50-minute classes that meet five days a week with longer classes that meet less frequently. The transition to block scheduling requires teachers to make significant changes in their instruction. I asked the teachers their thoughts on the new block schedule. A history teacher replied, “I love it. I’ve been teaching 30 years. For the first time, I can show the entire movie during one period.”

There’s no perfect system

With 30 years’ experience, the movie-loving teacher would be at the top of the salary guide and could be making twice the salary of a first-year teacher. I have no idea, of course, as to how effective this teacher was. However, there is important research — such as the work done by Michael Huberman on the professional life cycle of teachers — indicating that late-career teachers tend to disengage from their classes and that this disengagement is characterized by either serenity or bitterness. This is not to imply that all late-career teachers are disengaged from their classes. It does, however, raise the question: Is a disengaged teacher worth twice the salary of a novice teacher?

No system of teacher evaluation and compensation will ever be perfect. Douglas Harris, an economist with the Progressive Policy Institute, wrote, “Like most reform ideas, I think it depends on how you do it. If you tie a lot of it to test scores, it’s not viable. It’s hard to determine what a teacher contributes to test scores; there are so many other variables involved with students. Because goals for education are so complicated, it’s hard to settle on factors. We’re trying to measure teachers’ contributions to learning.”

While far more districts are discussing pay for performance than actually implementing it, the results of the few large-scale pay for performance initiatives have not been encouraging. The RAND Corporation evaluated programs in New York City, Texas, and Tennessee and reported that (a) student achievement did not improve, (b) the attitudes, behaviors and perceptions of teachers did not change, and (c) key conditions necessary for successful implementation — such as teacher buy-in and questions of fairness — were often lacking.

Establishing fair standards

Advocates of pay for performance believe that the status quo provides little incentive for teachers to focus on improving student learning. Brad Jupp, leader of a pay for performance design team in Denver, stated, “We believe that we can measure student learning with a degree of certainty. The industry has to accept responsibility for its product.” Opponents argue that it results in a less collaborative school culture and it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to design an efficacious system.

Technology will continue to provide school leaders with more meaningful information about the effects of teacher performance. Will this information be put to good use? The Rand Corporation finding that key conditions for successful implementation were often lacking highlights the biggest obstacles that may prevent the use of more robust teacher performance data.

Despite these obstacles, New Jersey education stakeholders, including the state Department of Education and the New Jersey Education Association union, need to begin to look at pay for performance, move forward incrementally, establish clear, fair standards, create the conditions for teacher buy-in, and develop a long range plan so that the next generation of teachers don’t worry about showing the entire movie.