11/08/2012 12:31 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

Why Teacher Performance Pay Won't Work

Teacher performance pay is the idea that we should pay teachers according to their students' academic performance. On a very basic level, this means that if students do poorly in a class, their teacher will face either a cut in pay or will not be eligible for a salary raise. As a student interested in education policy, I have been going back and forth about policies like this, debating whether this top-down approach is fair to our nation's teachers. The idea eerily reminds me of the 1920s factory model system, when assembly workers needed to manufacture X amount of parts by the end of the week -- or else they'd be fired. Unfortunately for proponents of the "factory model" in education, our students aren't machine parts and our teachers don't operate on an assembly line.

Each individual student learns differently and has different access to educational resources, which means they simply cannot be fairly evaluated based on state-issued standardized tests. The remnants of No Child Left Behind are so undesirable because too many schools would be categorized as "failing," despite large improvements in student outcomes. Many teachers are already underpaid, forced to pay for their own classroom supplies, thus suffering the consequences of poor district-level budgeting for education. These teachers can't possibly give their students the resources they need to succeed if the state isn't investing enough in their school districts (which is the case for too many low-income districts). Yet low-income school districts are the areas that need the most help. We invest more in prisons than we do in maintaining and improving our schools. It should be no surprise then that the majority of prison inmates are high school dropouts (but the school-to-prison pipeline is another discussion altogether). We simply do not devote enough capital in our nation's poorest schools and consequently poor students are stuck in overcrowded classrooms, forced to share outdated textbooks with several of their classmates, and do not receive the individualized attention they need to graduate and prepare for college-level work.

How can we blame teachers for that? The disparities in education generally come from systematic funding inequities, not from teacher ignorance. Despite the challenges they face
as educators, teachers still try their best by investing their own time and money to help their
students outside of the classroom and on the weekends. In other words, teachers are picking
up the slack caused by our politicians' inability to pass legislation for a more equitable public
education system.

This idea that we should pay our teachers according to their performance seems, then, morally
reprehensible. Perhaps I would be more in favor of performance pay if our teachers received
higher base salaries, but they don't. Many get paid between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, which is barely enough to cover personal expenses -- let alone classroom expenses. In some neighborhoods, many teachers even pay for their students' binders and notebooks simply because there isn't enough education funding to cover these costs for students, and some students are too poor to afford these materials on their own. Our congressmen and senators, however, still discuss performance pay for teachers -- in speeches and on the Capitol floor. It's a little ironic, don't you think? Let's remember the 112th Congress was actually dubbed the most unproductive Congress for passing the fewest bills in record-keeping history.

Unlike Congress, teachers go beyond their job descriptions and they understand the value in
teamwork. They generate innovative ideas to motivate their students, they hold regular meetings to discuss student performance, and they engage in "collaborative teaching" -- often integrating two different subjects for multidisciplinary learning. Rarely (or perhaps never) will you find an algebra teacher who feels he shouldn't help the English teacher just because they teach different subjects. Some of the finest public school teachers not only teach their students, but they challenge them to think differently. Mr. Mbanusi, a first-year teacher in North Carolina,
teaches his students about politically relevant issues including health, education, and economic
disparities among socioeconomic groups in his Social Justice class. Ms. Lane, an English
Language Arts (ELA) teacher in Austin, Texas, inspires her students by Skyping in some politically active young adults from across the country to talk with her class about civic engagement and the work they do. Ms. Lorenc, a retired History teacher from Fair Lawn, N.J., brought her students to Washington D.C. every year so that they may conduct research on a topic of their choice. Our politicians in Washington, on the other hand, are unable to follow in our teachers' footsteps. They function so independently of one another -- harboring this child-like "Democrat vs. Republican" mentality -- that they were actually a few hours shy of shutting down our federal government.

By shutting down the federal government, our politicians would have cut "non-essential" jobs
and services across the country, while still paying themselves their salaries. Sounds like a bunch
of overpaid, low-performers to me.

In the spirit of equity, I'm calling on Congress to pass a bill that would effectively lower their
own salaries, with increases based on performance. If our congressmen and congresswomen can subject themselves to performance-based pay, then I believe we can have a more meaningful dialogue about teacher performance pay. Start with a base salary equal to that of the median household income: $50,054. For every bill passed, we'll increase pay. For every .5 percent that unemployment rises, we'll lower their salaries. For outright lying to constituents, we will impeach them. During shutdowns, there will be absolutely no pay. Then we'll poll American voters to see how they think Congress is performing; failing grades will result in lesser pay. Unfortunately, right now, Congress has failing marks across the board -- despite being paid over $170,000/year.

If congressional performance-pay was seriously being debated, then I'm sure we would see
politicians retract their support for teacher performance pay altogether. It's easy to blame
teachers for failing schools and failing students, but there is no causal relationship between
the two. That being said, I'm not denying the correlation between teachers in low-income
neighborhoods and uninspired students. Other factors may include: lack of parental involvement, financial disinvestment in high-minority school districts, and an absence of culturally sensitive curriculums. In order for us to identify why our public schooling system is one of the least effective in the industrialized world, we need to consider all of these factors. And we need to stop blaming our teachers for the problems we find in education.

We are making the teaching profession increasingly undesirable, particularly for aspiring
educators wishing to teach in high-need school districts. These districts have among the worst
student outcomes and need the most help. But if we continue to blame our teachers for trying to single-handedly fix this broken education system, we'll be sorting the most qualified teachers into affluent, predominantly white schools - where salaries are higher and student achievement is above average. The least qualified teachers will be found in the predominantly black or Latino schools -- where salaries are embarrassingly low and student performance is below average.

Congressional performance pay will likely never happen, but teacher performance pay is more
likely to become a reality. Our elected officials should seriously consider other alternatives
to improving our schools. It's important that we remember that teachers are not failing
our students -- the system is failing our students. Once we reform the system, invest more
in education and teacher preparation, then one day we'll reclaim our title as the "land of
opportunity" -- not just for privileged students, but for low-income students, too.

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