THE BLOG
05/01/2013 11:53 am ET Updated Jun 30, 2013

Pay Educators for Performance? Yes, But...

By Jonathan Alfuth

Read Jon's previous post about compensation, "Hey Dad, Here's Why We Should Pay Teachers More."

I run a classroom store with my 9th graders using tickets, which they receive for exemplary performance in class. The criteria for earning tickets are clear, and they love getting "paid" for exemplary performance.

Just like my classroom ticket system, the idea of giving financial rewards for excellent performance serves as the foundation for an often promoted but at times controversial reform to our teacher compensation system, performance pay.

In a performance pay system, teachers or schools are graded based on the district's evaluation tool and given bonuses if they reach a certain threshold to reward their effort. As my district, Memphis City Schools, merges with Shelby County in the coming school year, the unified district is considering a new performance-based compensation system. But to make this new system work and ensure teacher buy-in, the district needs to take teacher feedback into account. Discussions with teachers suggest two main criteria that must be met to encourage educators to accept performance pay:

First, the system needs to be understandable and transparent. Teachers need to know how they can meet the performance benchmarks and most importantly understand the system being used to evaluate them. The success of a performance pay system depends upon a highly functional evaluation system that incorporates multiple measures of effectiveness. In Memphis (and elsewhere), this system includes value-added data from student test scores, classroom observations and content knowledge measures to rate teacher quality.

When multiple measures and transparency are not in place, however, many teachers simply do not trust in the accuracy of these systems, and therefore do not trust performance pay. So before rushing into new compensation systems based on performance, districts must focus on ensuring that evaluation systems are carefully designed with teacher input. If teachers don't understand the way the system functions, they won't support it and performance pay will become just another failed reform attempt.

Second, performance pay is most likely to be effective in subject areas where student performance is quantifiable using student test data or other metrics. Many grades and subjects do not have standardized assessments, so thorough measures must be in place to assess student progress in those areas. Tennessee, for example, is piloting a portfolio-based arts assessment tool developed by a group of teachers. If student data is seen as reliable, the chances of educators accepting performance pay will likely increase.

Finally, performance pay must be considered within the broader context of reforms targeted at improving student and teacher performance. Because teachers are driven by so much more than money, compensation will never serve as the primary motivator to behavioral change within the profession. By embedding a performance pay system within a holistic set of programs that support teachers to improve their practice, districts can avoid the pitfall of potentially incentivizing teachers to game the system, whether by "teaching to the test" at the expense of meaningful learning or, at its worse, cheating to get bonuses. School leaders should also focus on creating school cultures that prioritize teacher collaboration, which is crucial to student learning. Teachers actively seek out schools with collaborative cultures, and evidence from numerous studies suggests that performance pay implemented poorly can actually push school culture in the opposite direction.

Is it possible to set up a successful performance pay system? In theory, yes. However, research suggests that any performance pay system needs to be designed similar to my classroom's ticket system: it needs to be part of a multi-faceted system aimed at encouraging quality, easy to understand, and fair and equitable in how bonuses are distributed. Only when these criteria are met will performance pay find success in our education system.

Jonathan Alfuth teaches high school mathematics in Memphis City Schools and is a member of the Teach Plus Network.