Do’s and don’ts of merit pay

I like the synopsis on the recent NYC merit pay decision offered by Joanne Jacobs who always does a great job of keeping us informed on all things educational. And Alexander Russo has a good round-up of some of the commentary emerging from last week’s agreement between city and teacher union leaders.

While the city and the union are to be commended for being brave enough to even consider a pay for performance plan, their first attempt at it leaves much to be desired. When a group of us here at TLN studied performance pay for teachers, we urged those who would tread there to take certain precautions including:

  • Don’t focus on performance incentives and bonuses at the expense of improving your base-pay system.
  • Don’t tie rewards only to gains in student test scores.
  • Don’t offer incentives to just any teacher who wants to teach in a high needs, low-performing school.

Contrary to what many non-educators claim, good teachers are not afraid of accountability. Periodic use of standardized testing can be a useful tool; however, it is far too imprecise to stand as the primary measure of student learning, particularly in highly transient, high-needs schools where even the designers of much touted value added measures (e.g., William Sanders) admit the data is unstable.

As I’ve argued before, high needs schools need the highest quality teachers, and I doubt if $3,000/year will get them there, much less keep them. Truthfully, the teachers most likely to be successful in high needs schools (or any other for that matter) are not going to be motivated by bonuses, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need or deserve them.

Rather than tinker around with the edges of an outdated, underfunded single-salary schedule, I hope NYC and other school districts sit down with their best teachers to create a locally feasible professional compensation system that:

  • Restructures compensation for teachers starting with professionally appropriate base pay and multi-level career paths built around proven qualities of effective teaching.
  • Uses more sophisticated and accurate measures of teacher performance over time.
  • Creates career lattices giving every teacher opportunity and options to advance or expand professionally.
  • Compensates teachers who exhibit important characteristics of teacher leadership such as collaboration with peers, conducting original classroom research, or contributing to policy-making.
  • Provides significant and flexible compensation for teachers who demonstrate effectiveness and perserverance in high-needs schools or in locally determined critical shortage areas.
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