Saturday, May 17, 2008


Interesting juxtaposition of Ed Week articles this week—a commentary from James Starkey, 40-year classroom veteran from Colorado, Please Don’t Do Me Any Favors, and an article in the news section, Principals’ Group Seeks Influence on Incentive Pay. Subtext question in both pieces: What motivates people to improve their performance?

Starkey’s observations about hard-working and undervalued teachers rang true for me. Like Starkey and his wife, I have been prejudged and patronized dozens of times by those who pigeonhole teachers as noble, but benevolent and underpaid missionaries to the unschooled young. His points about the recurring churn in K-12 standards development, and the insulting assumption that mere teachers would have no idea what critical content and solid achievement markers look like in their subject disciplines, are spot-on. But then he says,

“ProComp [Denver’s performance pay plan] and similar programs arise from the assumption that teachers could work harder, and I simply reject that notion.”

Meanwhile, over at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, Executive Director Gerald Tirozzi declares that the NASSP doesn’t endorse performance pay for school administrators, then disingenuously offers a carefully constructed template for how to pay principals for their, umm, performance. Tirozzi does note, correctly, that it’s wise, when an issue is politically hot, for an organization to get out ahead of the rolling train and develop some policy recommendations of its own. I have no idea if the list of administrative performance indicators that the NASSP offers is complete and/or valid, but it’s certainly a good starting point for discussion:

The organization suggests looking at other variables, such as graduation rates and promotion rates, student enrollment in rigorous coursework like that developed by the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, college-attendance rates, school climate data, parent-participation data, and teacher-retention and -transfer rates.

It’s really too bad that the term “merit pay” has been so thoroughly co-opted by the aggressive conglomerate of those who believe that testing and punishment are the only effective policy levers for improving schools. It’s impossible to start a discussion on how we pay educators in America without two knee-jerk notions popping up: a) merit pay means paying teachers or principals more for raising test scores and b) educators should be offended by the idea that increasing compensation will lead to better results. Indeed—the first on-line commenter on the NASSP article says she’s insulted by the implication that she could work any harder than she does.

Directly linking standardized test scores to compensation bonuses is an intellectually dishonest, even dangerous, idea with fairly predictable “unintended” consequences—some teachers will behave just as B.F. Skinner might predict, conditioned by rewards, and others will struggle with their personal moral compass around what it means be a measurably good teacher. Meritorious teaching is a real thing, however—most parents could give you a quick sketch of its characteristics and benchmarks, without needing a standard deviation or statistic. And meritorious teaching should be recognized, deconstructed, modeled, emulated, studied, nurtured—and rewarded. The same goes for exemplary school leadership.

I understand and appreciate the origins of the single-salary schedule for teachers, a half-century ago: equal pay for equivalent work, providing strong incentives for teachers to complete academic degrees and strengthen their professional educational attainment. And I don’t buy the specious argument that educational institutions should follow a “business model” and pay teachers based on productivity. Teaching is not piece work, and there is also very little evidence that the highest-paid employees in most businesses are necessarily the most efficient or resourceful. Businesses don’t have the compensation-incentive problem knocked, either.

The difficulty here is that lockstep teacher pay is no longer moving us toward best use of available resources to reach our educational goals. The single salary schedule penalizes exceptional talent, innovation and effort, and rewards staying put and accruing credits.

There is nothing morally wrong with figuring out what meritorious teaching looks like, then actively pursuing and rewarding it. I would respectfully suggest that James Starkey has the causal direction of pay for performance backwards. We should not offer performance pay to teachers under the assumption that they will work harder for more money. We should offer performance pay to outstanding teachers and educational leaders because they deserve it.

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