Does Performance Pay Outperform Traditional Pay Methods for Teachers?
Professional Problems of Teachers ECI-696
Dr. Jeffrey Bloom
July 6, 2011
Performance pay is becoming an increasingly pressing issue in education today. The concept of performance related pay is not new and has not been proven to successfully motivate in cognitive based career fields and yet this is the model that more and more states are turning to in an effort to increase test scores, which they claim are indicative of student, and thereby education system, success. Much research has been done worldwide on the topic of performance pay and, in response to the current political climate, specifically performance pay for teachers. The overwhelming result of this research is that performance pay is not only unsuccessful in raising student achievement levels, it also does nothing to promote the acquisition or retention of the qualified, motivated and innovative teachers our students need. The specific reasons for the continued press toward this type of system, in the face of it’s recognized failure, are based in the foundations of our educational system and the underlying desired results of education.
Does Performance Pay Outperform Traditional Pay Methods for Teachers?
Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001 more public focus has been placed on education and, in an effort to appear proactive in creating better schooling for our children, politicians are now proposing the use of performance-based pay rubrics to increase student’s achievement. Student achievement has become a political catch phrase and teachers have become scapegoats on which to blame the perceived shortcomings of our education system. The problems with performance-based pay are many and the indicators of it’s success in accomplishing it’s proposed goals, including raising student achievement, recruiting and retaining quality teachers and holding teachers accountable for student growth, are few. In fact the research performed, both in the U.S and abroad, regarding performance pay as an incentive in the field of education suggests that has no positive impact whatsoever. So the question is why, if the research shows no positive result, are more and more states across America proposing new performance-based pay incentives?
Part of the reasoning for performance or merit pay programs being implemented is that our school systems are failing to produce “successful” students. In light of our nation’s current international standings on academic tests policy makers are in an uproar about the supposed failings of the educational system. One measure of success used by the U.S. Department of Education is the Program for International Student Assessment. The assessment has been administered tri-annually since 2000 to 15 year olds in over 60 countries. Thirty-four of these nations, including the U.S., are members of the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, an organization whose mission statement is, “to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.” According to results published by the U.S. Department of Education, our nation’s overall test results in reading, math and science, when compared to other developed nations, are right at the average mark (Fleischman, Hopstock, Pelczar, & Shelley, 2010). Other international assessments used to determine student achievement are the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, PIRLS, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, TIMSS. The PIRLS assessment has been given to 4th graders every five years beginning in 2001 and the TIMSS has been administered to both 4th and 8th grade students every four years going back to 1995. The results of these assessments, according to the U.S. Performance Across International Assessments of Student Achievement Special Supplement to The Condition of Education (Provasnik, Gonzales, & Miller, 2009) show similar results. The American students tested show within a few percentage points of average scores in all areas. Over time there was a slight increase in some areas but not enough to be considered measurable.
So with our students falling firmly into the academically average category among developed nations, even with the reforms of No Child Left Behind in place, our political leaders are looking for new reasons for this supposed deficiency. If we now have academically qualified teachers in every classroom, standards based instruction, and are basing our classroom instruction on scientifically based research, per NCLB requirements, then clearly the fault must lie somewhere within the control of the teachers themselves. This seems to be the thinking behind the performance pay movement. On the surface, and when presented to a voting public ignorant of the issues involved in educating the diverse youth of our nation, this seems like a logical conclusion and a reasonable step to take.
However the research done on previous attempts at performance pay initiatives provides evidence to the contrary. This model has been tried, unsuccessfully, since the mid-1800s. One of the earliest examples of performance-based pay for teachers comes from England where, in 1858, a Royal Commission chaired by The Duke of Newcastle recommended that public money for education be based on a system of “payment by results”. In an effort to protect the public money being spent on education this recommendation was accepted and, in 1862, the Revised Code for Education was published outlining the new basis for teacher pay. According to the new statute, “In future schools could claim 4s a year for each pupil with a satisfactory attendance record. An additional 8s was paid if the pupil passed examinations in reading, writing and arithmetic.” The result of this change in pay criteria was teachers focusing their attentions on teaching only the materials on which Her Majesties Inspectors would be testing the students. This undesirable focus on the part of the teachers was recognized within the first five years of the new system, however, being a governmentally instituted reform, it took over 35 years to reverse the system once it was put in place (Bourne & MacArthur1970).
Here in the United States merit-based pay is not a new idea either. In 1918, 48% of sampled school districts used some type of performance-based pay scale. According to the National Education Association, by 1923 that percentage had dropped to 33% and by 1928 only 18% of the districts surveyed were awarding merit pay. Over the next 25 years that number continued to decline until, in 1953, there were only 4 school systems in cities of more than 30,000 people using this system of pay. The specific reasons for this decline in merit pay systems is not clear but the evidence of its initial use and subsequent dismissal leaves little doubt that the system was not found to be successful. During the late 1960’s districts were again surveyed and the results showed a slight increase, up to 10%, in the number of districts using performance-based pay systems. However this increase was short lived and, by 1978, only four percent of the responding districts were using a performance-pay program. Additional survey questions showed that the majority of school districts that had adopted merit-based pay reported dropping the system within five years of implementation (Porwall, 1979). Clearly, the idea of paying teachers based on some type of performance objective is one that has been around almost as long as institutionalized education in the U.S. and, just as clearly, it has not met with any great success in any of it’s incarnations.
Recently, with the latest push towards merit-based pay, formal research has been conducted to determine the success, if any, of such programs. One of these studies, The Project on Incentives in Teaching Experiment was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and performed by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development in partnership with the RAND Corporation. It was a three-year study offering teachers pay for performance incentives of up to $15,000 per year based on their students test score gains on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP). This was strictly a test outcome based experiment. According to Matthew G. Springer, one of the principal researchers this was done very intentionally. He states in the experiment’s results report, “We designed POINT in this manner not because we believed that an incentive system of this type is the most effective way to improve teaching performance, but because the idea of rewarding teachers on the basis of students’ test scores has gained such currency. We sought a clean test of the basic proposition: If teachers know they will be rewarded for an increase in their students’ test scores, will test scores go up? We found that the answer to that question is no.” (Springer, 2010)
Roland G. Fryer, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, reached the same conclusion after studying the effects of a performance-based pay system used in a randomized trial in over 200 New York City Schools during the 2007-08 to 2009-10 school years. In the abstract of his report he states, “I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.”
So why, if it is a tried and found wanting program, does the idea of performance pay continue to be raised in relation to improving student achievement? This is a question whose roots go back to the earliest days of education reform. To what end are we educating our children in the first place? Do we want them to be happy? Do we want them to be monetarily successful? Do we want them to fit into society and, if so, what exactly does that mean? These questions are heart of all government funded education and, in the case of U.S. education, the answers are in the foundations of the system itself.
Thomas Jefferson saw public school as something that should not be compulsory but something that families would desire for their children. In his eyes,
The objects of… primary education [which] determine its character and limits [are]: To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; to enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts in writing; to improve, by reading, his morals and faculties; to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either; to know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains, to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor and judgment; and in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.(Jefferson, 1818)
Jefferson viewed learning as an opportunity for the growth of each person as an individual. He also saw education as an opportunity to cultivate talent, not just teach a specific, prescribed set of standards.
The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. (Jefferson, 1817)
So when did the purpose of education become focused on the acquisition of a certain set of information rather than the growth of the individual? In the late 1800’s when the industrial revolution swept the United States. The political and financial powers of the time recognized that for their continued personal success and the monetary success of the nation, the only success they saw as acceptable, there would need to be a society of workers who were fit to keep the great machinery of our nation running. To this end public schooling was reformed and it’s primary focus dramatically changed from one of self-improvement to one of self-subjugation. William Torrey Harris was U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906. In his writing, The Philosophy of Education, he states, “Ninety-nine students out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.”(1906). The path set forth by Harris for education is the one our education system is still following today.
Our schools are designed to teach the information seen as necessary to the continued global success of our nation both in power and monetarily and what better way to ensure that teachers will continue to teach to this agenda than to explicitly design their teaching materials, demand that they follow the curriculum with fidelity, test students on their successful learning of that specific material and then base teacher pay on how well the students perform? Teachers are workers too and their livelihoods depend on their paychecks. By implementing pay for performance systems the controlling powers are ensuring their own success by forcing teachers to adhere to the given curriculum even if they know it not reasonable or even doable for all students. It is not coincidence that the last time merit-based pay systems were popular was during the early 1900’s when this new education reform was being put into place. Again, what better way to keep educators in line than to force their cooperation through making their pay dependent on doing what they are told?
The current call for performance-based pay is just the latest visible effort on the part of politicians to appear to be addressing the perceived failings of our education system. The truth is that whether they are paid based on years of service, level of education, or performance outcomes, teachers will continue to teach. Those who go into the profession for the love of students and learning will go on making a difference in the lives of their students and those who see it as a job will go on teaching mediocrely regardless of any incentives placed before them. As Alfie Kohn states “Incentives do not alter the attitudes that underlie our behaviors.” (1993)
We cannot control the government, we cannot control our student’s home lives and we cannot control the decisions made for and about our profession by an ignorant about the issues public. But we can choose for ourselves to do what we see as best for our students within our own classrooms and to stay informed and involved so that when opportunities for positive change are created we are ready to take them and use them to better the system for those teachers and students who come after us.
Bourne, R. and MacArthur, B. (1970). The struggle for education 1870–1970. London: Schoolmaster Publishing Co.
Fleischman, H.L., Hopstock, P.J., Pelczar, M.P., & Shelley, B.E. U.S. Department of Education. (2010). Highlights from pisa 2009: performance of u.s. 15-year-old students in reading,
mathematics and science literacy in an international context. (NCES 2011-004). Washington
D.C.: U.S.Government Printing Office.
Harris, W.T. (1906). The philosophy of education. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy
Jefferson, Thomas (1817) Excerpt for a letter to M. Correa de Serra
Jefferson, Thomas (1818) Report for the University of Virginia
Kohn, Alfie. (1993). Why incentive plans cannot work. Harvard Business Review,
Provasnik, S, Gonzales, P, & Miller, D. U.S. Department of Education, (2009). U.S. performance across international assessments of student’s achievement: special supplement to the condition of education 2009 (NCES 2009-083). Washington D.C.: U.S.Government Printing Office.
Springer, M.G., Ballou, D., Hamilton, L., Le,V., Lockwood, J.R., McCaffrey, D., Pepper, M., and Stecher, B. (2010). Teacher Pay for Performance: Experimental Evidence from the Project on Incentives in Teaching. Nashville, TN: National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University.