A performance-pay plan that falls short


Eighteen award-winning teachers have come up with a performance-pay plan for teachers. It is full of good ideas. These people know what success in the classroom means. So why am I having trouble accepting the whole package?

The teachers, backed by the Center for Teaching Quality in Hillsborough, N.C., and calling themselves the TeacherSolutions team, break their plan into 10 parts.

Some parts of their plan are solid. Breaking the base-pay system into three tiers &

novice, professional and expert &

makes sense. Rewarding teachers who help students make significant gains is an obvious step. Giving after-hours leadership assignments to the best teachers, not the oldest, and paying them for that time would also be an improvement. I am even willing to concede that teachers should be judged on improvement of their students on more than just one kind of assessment.

But the teachers trouble me with point number four, "Provide additional pay for additional degrees and professional development, but only if the training is relevant." And they lose me completely with point number nine, "Be brave, be bold."

I have seen versions of "Be brave, be bold" in nearly every high-profile, blue-ribbon, big-expense-account master plan for saving our schools in the last 20 years. These teachers said they had broken away from those pie-in-the-sky-eating fat cats. But here they go, doing what all those other reports do, embracing the conventions of romantic fiction:

"We realize our ideas will not be easily implemented. For many school systems, the changes we recommend will require nothing less than a total overhaul of the compensation system now in place. These ideas represent a radical departure from the traditional ways in which our society has compensated K-12 teachers, even the best of whom rarely, if ever, make as much as the least effective principal or administrator in a school district."

I used to love paragraphs like that, when I was 20. I may have occasionally written paragraphs like that when I was in my 30s and 40s, but by the time I reached 50, and realized education reporting was my calling, it hit me that "radical departures" never get anywhere when attempted all at once on a large scale.

The more accurate slogan is "Be brave, be bold, be beaten to a pulp." I dream of opening up one of these reports and reading something like this: "Most of these ideas have already proven to work in some schools, and the new ones are congenial enough with ordinary school cultures to be introduced right away. It might be best to try them out in just a few classrooms and schools first. We provide tips on how to do that, and how to handle any of the political obstacles that get in your way."

No such luck here. I realize that everybody needs to reach for the stars. I have spent most of my time as a reporter focusing on relatively young and isolated teachers who achieved great things. But in every case they started under the radar, unseen by the powers that be, with only their school principals providing any resistance, and usually not much because principals have other things to do. Small rebels should have big goals. Big rebels with foundation backing, like the TeacherSolutions team, should be more modest.

On second thought, maybe they included "Be brave, be bold" so they could feel good about what they were doing, but didn't really mean it. Many of their ideas, after all, are quite practical. A few of them are already been tried. The three-tier pay system is similar to what the Milken Family Foundations has instituted in some Phoenix schools. Several districts are experimenting with rewarding teachers whose students make significant gains, and some of those plans reward teams of teachers who do well, as these teachers recommend. We have incentives in place in states like California for qualified teachers to work in low-performing schools, as recommended by the team. I have yet to find a school that does not already award after-hours jobs requiring initiative and leadership to their best, not their oldest, teachers, but it would be nice to enshrine that principle in writing, and find more money to compensate those people.

If these good-hearted innovators will delete, or explain better, a couple of their recommendations, they might win me over. I think their recommendation for incentive programs for teachers in subjects that do not have standardized tests is a problem. Introduce any subjective measures into these systems, and you open the door to politics and favor trading. I have the same problem with their view that additional pay should be given, as it is now, for additional degrees and professional development, but "only if the training is relevant." Relevancy is a very tricky concept, easy to corrupt. Once again, they risk a system that strays from the principle of paying more to teachers whose students learn more.

Other than that, I think they have something.

Share This Story