Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why Teacher Salaries Should Not Be Tied to Student Performance

On paper, it seems like a great idea: good teachers should be paid more than bad teachers.  I mean, ideally there are no bad teachers, so let's at least say that the best teachers should make the most money.  Many different types of jobs operate in the same way; why not education?

This is why current federal legislation wants all states to adopt a policy of basing teacher salaries on student test scores.  The higher a class's test scores are in a given year, the better the teacher, right?  If a school has three fourth grade classes, with a roughly even spread in terms of demographics, ability, and previous years' test scores, and one of those classes does better overall than the other two, that teacher is clearly the best, right?  And if a teacher is good, their class's test results should steadily improve from year to year.  


I disagree with this philosophy.  I believe there are a number of reasons why performance-based salaries for teachers are illogical and ill-advised, and potentially detrimental to our nation's public education system.  I'm by no means an expert in this field - I'm a ballet teacher with a bachelor's degree in dance, which included some classes in dance pedagogy and teaching methods; and I'm the daughter of a public school teacher, and that's about the extent of my credentials.  However, this is something I feel pretty strongly about.

1. Performance-based pay presupposes that one teacher is solely responsible for their students' performance.
As a ballet teacher, I can attest to the fact that students do not come to us as blank canvases.  Education begins at home, and the quality of education children receive in their homes is radically different and based on a plethora of factors.  Some children attend preschool; others do not.  Some children can read when they enter kindergarten; some children have parents who can't read English themselves.  By the time students have spent just a couple years in elementary school, their academic knowledge is already the product of an amalgamation of many influences, from their parents or guardians to their previous school teachers to educational materials outside school (such as libraries, children's museums, and extracurricular activities) to the friends they have.  All this affects a student's learning style, learning ability, and learning level - which affect classroom performance and test scores.  A teacher should not be held responsible for the influence others have had in educating their students - whether positive or negative.  If a student performs well on a test, is it because the teacher did a great job, or is it because the student's parents read to him or her every night and make sure they do their homework?  On a broader scope, if one school in a town does more poorly than another school, is it because that school has inferior teachers, or because they are teaching students who are at an educational disadvantage because of where they live or their parents' income?  (As a side note, this is why many people support vouchers to make it affordable for students to go to a different school if their school under-performs - but again, how do you know the other school is better, and not just populated by children from affluent families, giving them more opportunities for success?)

2.  Performance-based pay assumes that tracking a teacher's results is the same as tracking student progress.
To me, this is the most obvious flaw in performance-based salaries.  You can't tell whether a teacher is improving by looking at their class performance from year to year, because they have a different group of kids every year.  If you do a six-year study of a new medication, but choose a new group of test subjects each year, you're not doing a six-year study; you're doing six one-year studies.  Every teacher will tell you that each class is unique and it's unfair to compare them to a previous class.  Some classes are bigger than others (especially in years when the budget is tighter).  Some classes have more students with behavior problems.  Every class is a different mix of IQ, income level, family situation, and other factors that contribute to their performance.  The only way to link teacher performance with student progress is for one teacher to teach the same group of students every year.  I feel like pointing out that this is exactly how ballet education works in Russia, the country that consistently turns out the best dancers in the world.  Each class has one teacher for eight years, the entire length of time they are in the school.  If a class begins to develop technical weaknesses, the schools' directors know it's the fault of the teacher because the students have had no other input.  It's a system that might be worth considering in academic education, really.

3.  Performance-based pay punishes good teachers for bad teachers' mistakes.
I am fully aware that some teachers are just better than others.  The problem is, when a bad teacher's students move on to a good teacher's class, those students are going to have a harder time no matter how good the teacher is.  My mom is a fourth-grade teacher in a public school.  In fourth grade, students are supposed to memorize the multiplication facts.  My mom has had so many students who, at the beginning of the year, do not know their addition facts and have to count on their fingers to add.  Obviously these students are already at a disadvantage compared to students who know their addition facts and have already begun multiplication.  Getting them on track requires them to learn faster than "bright" students.  My mom is a great teacher, and she works with these kids, but some of them still don't finish learning the multiplication tables by the time they leave fourth grade.  Performance-based salary means that not only is the initial "bad" teacher punished if their kids fail to show growth, but every subsequent teacher is liable to receive the same penalty even if their students improve, because they may never reach the top of their grade level.  That sounds pessimistic, but it's just reality.

4.  Performance-based pay holds teachers responsible for things outside their control.
There are two parts to this point: a) class composition and b) class curriculum.  In a school that has more than one classroom per grade, many factors go into dividing the students: student behavior, performance, ethnicity (if one of the teachers is multilingual), disabilities, class size, and in some schools, parent requests.  Most teachers have very little, if any, say in who gets put in their classrooms. And once classes are set, they don't always stay that way.  Kids move to or away from town.  Behavior problems may result in a child getting moved to another class.  Some students may be selected to join a magnet school, or the parents may decide to private or homeschool their children.  Teachers have no control over these factors, and performance-based pay doesn't take these things into account.  Another factor teachers have little control over is curriculum.  For the past few decades, our country has been scrambling to fix the education system, and one of the primary ways it's been doing that is with new curricula.  Many schools are adopting new curricula on top of new curricula before they even have time to try out one system to see if it works.  Adopting a new curriculum is hard; it takes time to get familiar with the material, to learn to navigate any digital materials that are part of it, to work out the bugs and find errors (because that happens), and to develop a sense of pacing and flow.  This can affect student performance either positively or negatively, and there's really no way to know how it will go until it happens.  A performance-based pay system does not allow for variances in test scores that are the result of using a different curriculum.

5.  Performance-based pay discourages collaboration.
In a world where competition and bitter rivalry mark most career paths and corporation, education stands apart as the one field in which information is freely shared, because good educators recognize that one person's success is everyone's success.  A performance-based salary model puts teachers in the same boat as retailers, news stations, and Internet providers by creating an environment of competition rather than collaboration.  Most teachers are collaborators by nature.  We are always going to other, more experienced teachers for ideas and advice on how to be more effective at what we do.  There are teacher-created websites, Pinterest boards, and blogs dedicated to teachers sharing lesson plans, activities, and strategies with other teachers.  This is on top of the numerous workshops and meetings teachers attend each year.  We all want the best for our students - that's why we got into this business - therefore there is no reason not to help each other.  A salary based on student test scores alters this paradigm.  In a school with that kind of model, teachers will recognize that their best chance for success is to keep all their good ideas to themselves.  It is easy to imagine how this could negatively affect our school system - new teachers will not be inclined to share the latest theories on teaching with those who have been teaching for many years, and the experienced teachers will keep their wisdom to themselves rather than helping young teachers grow.  And who will suffer the most? Students, because in a performance-based pay system, other people's failure is my success, and "other people" ultimately means students who are in someone else's class.

I do think our education system needs work.  I think there are things we can do to help fix it, but I don't think this is the way to do it.  I'm not convinced that legislators understand how teaching actually works or how children actually learn.  I think the best ideas for improving our school system need to come from the people who know best - from the people who are actually teaching.


  1. I really liked this post; the legislators do seem to want to pit people against each other, and it does seem like they are trying to do it to everybody. What are your thoughts on the new Common Core Curriculum?

    1. Common Core is not a curriculum; it is a list of educational standards that is supposed to ensure that all public schools are providing quality education. Right now each state is able to choose its standards (in other words, a list of objectives for what each grade should be accomplishing in the course of a year), and the standards from state to state do not match up. If all states adopt Common Core standards, every state will have the same goals for their students. They can still choose their own curricula and everything, but students will be assessed on how well they have mastered Common Core standards.

      I think Common Core is a good idea in that it incorporates higher-order thinking as part of its standards, and it will make it easier for colleges to gauge the "value" of a student's grades. It may even eventually make standardized tests such as the SAT, PSAT, and ACT obsolete because those tests were created because you can't always tell if an A at one school means the same thing as an A at another school, and Common Core should address that.

      My main concern with Common Core is its implementation. Right now, our school district is trying to adopt Common Core *in addition to* trying out tons of new curricula and methodologies, and it's too much new information for the teachers - let alone the students - to handle. Also, since Common Core is new, curricula that are created for it are still in the early stages right now (our district adopted a reading/writing curriculum for elementary that is brand new, and it took me no time at all to find errors in the assessment materials; plus the web component is so counter-intuitive it makes me want to pull my hair out). Plus, evaluating high school students on the Common Core standards is not really going to be fair for 8-11 years, because the ones who are in high school right now will not have benefited from a supposedly cohesive system for their entire education. On the contrary, state standards have fluctuated and changed so much in the last 15 years that I don't know how any teachers have been able to accomplish anything.

      In short, while Common Core is a good *idea* I think it's too soon to tell if it's really going to work in the way it's supposed to. Plus I think our school system needs to stop pretending China is the pinnacle of education and look at what Finland has done in the last couple decades.