Public Education: Is Pay for Performance the Answer?

President Obama has put merit pay for teachers on a long list of educational reforms he'd like to enact. His $4.3 billion dollar "Race to the Top" initiative includes encouragement for states to experiment with teachers' compensation. But who gets rewarded - and how do we measure success?


GLASSMAN:  `00:00:01  Hello, I'm Jim Glassman and welcome to IDEAS IN ACTION, a new kind of television series about ideas and their consequences.  This week, across the country, schools are experimenting with new ways to reward and retain great teachers.  One idea:  pay teachers for performance in the classroom.  But who gets rewarded and how do you measure success?

Joining me to explore this topic are:  Cynthia Brown, Vice President of Education at the Center for American Progress; Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute and former education columnist for the New York Times; and, James Guthrie, Director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University.

The topic this week:  Pay for performance in the classroom.  This is IDEAS IN ACTION.

OBAMA [ON FILM] `00:01:00 From the moment a student enters a school, the single most important factor in their success is the person in front of the classroom.  Every one of us can point to a teacher who inspired us and in some ways shaped the course of our lives.

GLASSMAN:  `00:01:15 Perhaps no single factor makes a bigger difference in a student's life than a good teacher.  But the question of how to create good teachers remains a mystery.  Traditionally economic incentives, the kinds of bonuses and merit pay common in most professions were not part of the equation, but that is changing.

OBAMA [ON FILM]  `00:01:34 Great teachers are the bulwark of America.  They should be valued and they should be honored.

GLASSMAN:  `00:01:39 President Obama has put merit pay for teachers on a long list of educational reforms that he'd like to enact.  His 4.3 billion dollar race to the top initiative includes encouragement for states to experiment with teachers' compensation.  But teachers unions remain opposed to any far reaching reform.

Jim Guthrie, let me start with you.  Why the renewed interest in pay for performance for teachers?

GUTHRIE:  `00:02:05 Education has become so much more important in the lives of individuals and for the entire nation.  Once a youngster could drop out of high school, get a good job -- good paying job -- marry his sweetheart and pursue the American dream without being well educated. 

`00:02:24 Those jobs are gone now. They're overseas if they exist at all.  And the way to some kind of material well-being may be even some kind of fulfillment.  The route to that now is through education.

GLASSMAN:  `00:02:39 Richard, what do teachers think of pay for performance?

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:02:42 Well, I can't speak for teachers, Jim, but I think that most teachers are aware of the fact that teaching is a very complex endeavor, that there are many things they're supposed to accomplish.  They're supposed to teach academic skills, they're supposed to help build their children's character, they're supposed to teach them social skills and get them ready for the work force.

`00:03:02 And I think what many teachers fear is that pay for performance will be based on measuring only some of the things that they're supposed to do.  For example only test scores in math or only test scores in reading.  And will create a system where more and more attention is being paid to only a few of the things that they should do and they are prevented from focusing their attention on delivering a well-rounded education to all of the children that they are responsible for.

GLASSMAN:  `00:03:28 We're going to get to this issue of test scores.  But first I wanted to ask Cindy -- there has been experimentation with pay for performance.  Do we have an idea of what works now  and what doesn't?

BROWN:  `00:03:38 Well, I think we have a better idea of what works.  We don't have a final answer as to what a pay for performance system would look like. But there are districts in states that have been at this for a while.  Denver, Colorado, comes to mind, Minnesota, statewide Q Comp program.  Houston which got off to a pretty rocky start but made mid-course corrections, they've had some success.

GLASSMAN:  `00:04:08 Jim, Richard just mentioned the problem of what to measure.  Other sectors of the economy -- in fact just about every other sector of the economy uses some kind of form of pay for performance.  Is there something different about education?

GUTHRIE:  `00:04:25 There has been up until recently.  The -- as much as I really regard Richard highly, actually some of the things he has said -- have been a cover.  They've just been a disguise for shifting away from teachers and talking about how difficult it is and we can't measure it and therefore we shouldn't do it. 

`00:04:49 I think that's really got to change.  There is much that teachers do that's complicated, about that there is no argument.  But there have to be some ways to measure their performance.

GLASSMAN:  `00:04:58 What is wrong with test scores as a measurement of performance?  Is there anything that's better than test scores?

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:05:05 They only test some of the things the teachers are doing and we can't measure all of the things that they're doing. And, so, if you hold teachers accountable only for some of the things that they do, you set up a system where there are incentives to abandon the other things.

`00:05:20 And we've actually seen this in the last few years under No Child Left Behind with an accountability system that's based on test scores in math and reading.  What we've found is that teachers, particularly teachers with disadvantaged children with low math and reading scores -- schools have been abandoning social studies, they've been abandoning science, they've been abandoning the arts and music, they've been abandoning physical education because all they're being held accountable for is test scores in math and reading.

`00:05:45 Now, if you wanted to evaluate teachers properly, you would certainly use test scores as a part of it, but you would also have a holistic evaluation which would be based on evaluation of their -- the quality of their teaching, observation of their classrooms and examination of student work.

`00:06:02 And our schools aren't set up to do that now.  You mentioned other professions, there's no other profession where you have supervisory ratios like you have in education, where you might have one principal responsible for supervising 30 teachers.  No other profession does that.

`00:06:17 And so it's impossible with the current structure of our schools to give the kind of holistic evaluation that comparing teachers with each other would require.

GLASSMAN:  `00:06:27 So, is the answer just not to evaluate at all?

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:06:30 Oh, no, the answer is to improve the way we evaluate and abandon the obsession that we've had with defining a teacher's competence solely on the basis of the test scores of their students.

BROWN:  `00:06:42 I don't disagree with what Richard said.  We have only a minority of teachers that are actually teaching in subjects that are tested regularly on state assessments.

GUTHRIE:  Thirty-one percent of them.

BROWN:  `00:06:54 Right exactly.  But we are moving -- ironically the focus on measuring how teachers are doing based on test scores has really opened up the important issue which is the quality of evaluations, which have been frankly ridiculous and very non-substantive.

`00:07:15 Satisfactory, unsatisfactory in the vast majority of the schools around the country.  But we're moving away from that and the interesting thing about pay for performance proposals is they're almost always coupled with a bigger differential pay idea that has teachers assuming greater responsibilities as mentor teachers, as master teachers, as expert evaluators for peer evaluations so that we have added responsibilities for teachers, with additional response -- pay -- as a notion -- as part of a notion of a rich evaluation of how teachers are doing.

GUTHRIE:  `00:07:58 Just for a moment, let me take the opposite side of this completely.  Maybe it's not all bad to measure teachers' performance with student test scores, it might not be all bad for several reasons.

`00:08:10 First of all, Richard, I fully concur the teacher's responsible for a spectrum of things.  For very long -- a very long time -- there were many teachers who did not teach reading well, if at all, or teach mathematics well at all.

`00:08:22 Those are fundamental activities and however much other things teachers do, they have to do those. And, so, if we need a framework, some kind of fundament around which to measure teachers, maybe it's not bad as a foundation to have some test scores in there.

`00:08:40 But modern day testing is full of flaws.  We acknowledge that.  But I think we're getting better at it. Then there's always this comment about well, teachers will teach to the test.  Frankly, that's okay.  If it's a good test, I don't care if they teach to the test. What's bad is if they teach the test.  That would be bad, but teaching to the test is not all bad.

GLASSMAN:  `00:09:01 I just want to clarify something.  Are you, Richard, against the notion of teachers being accountable for the performance of their students or are you simply saying it's really hard to evaluate the impact of a teacher on a student?

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:09:14 I'm not opposed to holding teachers accountable for their performance.  What I'm saying is that our education system today is not set up to do that.  And using test scores as a way of doing that is a shortcut which does more harm than good.

`00:09:28 Because when you do that, you create incentives that distort the curriculum. We've seen enormous distortion in the American curriculum in the last decade, because of this.  And if we add incentives to individual teachers for this accountability, we're going to distort the curriculum even more.

GLASSMAN:  `00:09:44 People out there who may be watching this might be saying, what do you mean distort the curriculum. Reading and math are what are tested.  Those seem to be the most important parts of the curriculum.

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:09:53 Well, they're not the most important parts of the curriculum.  The curriculum has to be a balanced whole. They are important, but character development is important.  Children's ability to work cooperatively is important.  Their knowledge of science and history is important.

`00:10:07 To say that the only things we're going to hold teachers accountable for is the math scores and the reading scores of their students -- creates incentives for teachers to abandon all of these other things.

BROWN:  `00:10:21 The irony of what he's saying is that yes there are many schools which have narrowed the curriculum.  But if you look at high performing, high poverty schools, they don't look like that. They are not narrow.  I'm thinking of the Kip charter schools, the Achievement First charter schools and numerous traditional public schools as well, particularly in places like Long Beach -- are all deemed recent winners of the Broad Prize.

`00:10:51 They have rich curriculum, they have often times expanded the time particularly in high poverty schools for kids who don't get the opportunities in their families or communities that more affluent kids get for art and music lessons and drama and book clubs, let alone sports activities, which have been taken out of too many inner city schools.

GLASSMAN:  `00:11:13 You're saying these high performing schools --

BROWN:  `00:11:15 They have this rich curriculum and focus on things like character development.  Now, they have to have more time to do this because the kids are behind in reading and math and they have to have really talented teachers working on that as well.

`00:11:32 But we know that high performing schools with lots of disadvantaged kids do not have this narrow -- what some of us call this drill and kill kind of approach --

GLASSMAN:  `00:11:43 Are you agreeing with Richard that by making reading and math scores the main criteria for pay for performance that that is a deterrent to getting good teachers or good performance?

BROWN:  `00:11:57 Well, I don't totally agree with him because I think reading and math are so fundamental and I think history teachers and science teachers --

[speaking over each other]

BROWN:  `00:12:04 -- should be teaching reading too.

GUTHRIE:  `00:12:09 We've got this backwards in part.  We're looking through the wrong end of the telescope here.  There are absolutely problems with measuring teacher performance.  But against what?  What's the alternative?

`00:12:21 The present system is so much worse flawed than anything we've talked about so far when we're rewarding people for seniority alone or for very empty college credits beyond the Bachelor's degree that do not necessarily align themselves at all with what the teacher teaches.

`00:12:41 The present system is broken.  The problem -- we know it's broken.  What the problem is we're not sure with what precisely to replace it.  That's --

GLASSMAN:  `00:12:48 And actually I was going to ask Richard that question.  This may be an imperfect answer, that is to say, basing pay for performance on standardized tests.  But is there a -- does it make sense to move towards some kind of pay for performance system even now before we get the evaluation system perfect or should we stick with the system that Jim is talking about which is mainly, as I understand it, seniority based?

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:13:16 Well, we have a system now that's bad.  Nobody disagrees with that.  The kinds of pay for performance that we've been discussing so far based on test scores is worse.  So, because you have a bad system -- it doesn't justify substituting it for something worse.  What we should be moving towards is a system by which we evaluate teachers in a holistic way which is expensive. 

`00:13:36 It requires more evaluation than we're currently doing, one principal as I said before cannot evaluate 30 teachers in a meaningful way.  It requires more people doing the evaluation, it requires more research into what makes a good teacher.  We don't really know what makes a good teacher. So, we need to create standards for those evaluations. 

`00:13:56 That's the direction we ought to be moving in, not trying to incentivize teachers to boost their test scores by artificial means.

GUTHRIE:  `00:14:05 But Richard I think in part you're setting up a straw net, in part, because, as Cindy mentioned earlier, there are very few of these performance pay plans which are narrowly focused on test scores.

BROWN:  `00:14:16 Maybe none.

GUTHRIE:  `00:14:16 Well, I couldn't think of any.  Actually most of them have multiple measures in them and some of them even have measures of teachers instructional capacity and processes. 

GLASSMAN:  `00:14:28 But Richard is worried that one principal - that these kind of more subjective standards -- these more subjective determinants of pay are very difficult to come by.

GUTHRIE:  `00:14:39 This is where he's just right on.  I mean, we've been beating up on school administrative costs for so long like this is something you can reduce and get out of the way.  And in fact very seldom in the military, in manufacturing or in the commercial sector do you see one executive responsible -- he said 30.  I thought you were generous. Try 100 high school teachers.

`00:15:01 Seldom do you see an executive with a span of control like that.  It doesn't' work.  He's just spot on.

BROWN:  `00:15:07 Which is why you need to put in a system of peer evaluators, expert teachers who are perhaps relieved of their classroom duty for a year or two or have their classrooms cut down so that they can do observations of teachers in other schools, maybe in their own schools.

`00:15:27 But the notion of how to move forward I believe is through a lot of experimentation, because we don't have the correct answers yet.

GLASSMAN:  `00:15:37 But what you're saying is you need to get serious about pay for performance because it's going to require a major investment. You can't -- this is not something that can be done in a very simple way. 

GUTHRIE:  `00:15:49 But that's the flaw we're finding.  In the 33 teacher incentive fund districts now across the United States, some very large -- Chicago, Houston -- some very small -- charter schools -- what we're finding is that too frequently they take this to be some carbuncle they can stick on the side of the school district and not understanding that when you evaluate performance and tie remuneration to it, you're cutting to the very core of what the organization does.

`00:16:16 And if I had a fear out of this it's too many districts will take all of this too lightly and move too quickly and avoid the careful experimentation to which Cindy made reference.

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:16:28 Jim, I'd like to make another point and that is that one issue is the -- it's very expensive to do this if you're really going to evaluate teachers in the way that we've been talking about.  Because whether you call them peer reviewers or more administrators it's more people, more administrators --

GUTHRIE:  `00:16:41 More time.

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:16:41 More time, more people being paid.  But the other point I wanted to make is that we need to separate whether we should do more evaluation of teachers and whether we should tie that to their pay.  Those are two separate issues.

`00:16:53 The pay for performance idea has another flaw in it.  And that is that it assumes that there are a lot of teachers out there who are not doing a good job, because they're lazy.  And if we gave them more money they would work harder and do a good job.

`00:17:05 I don't think there's any evidence for that. 

[speaking over each other]

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:17:09 Let me finish.  There's no evidence for that.  There may be some teachers like that, but most teachers who are not getting the achievement that they want are not getting the achievement that we want because they don't know how.  And paying them more money -- paying more money to teachers who don't know how to do a better job is not going to improve student achievement.

`00:17:25 In some cases teachers don't know how to overcome serious social disadvantages that children come to.  In some cases they just don't have the instructional training that they need.  But paying more money assumes that teachers are -- know how to do it and are simply refusing to without additional monetary incentives.

GLASSMAN:  `00:17:44 I'm not sure that's true in other sectors. People are paid more than other people not because they're more energetic -- sometimes that's part of it -- but they're better able to get the job done.  It's not necessarily a question of laziness.  It may be a question of not acquiring the skills.  So, my question is, is there something different about being a teacher from being an auto worker or a lawyer or virtually any other job in society where people tend to get paid by their performance?

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:18:16 Well, the idea of paying people more in order to get better performance assumes that they know how to do better and are not doing it because they're not well enough rewarded --

[speaking over each other]

GUTHRIE:  `00:18:28 I just don't buy that assumption, Richard.  I think the more likely assumption is that if individuals understand that their remuneration is going to be tied to their performance, they'll be more highly motivated to learn how to do it better.

`00:18:42 It's not a problem of laziness, it generally isn't a challenge of knowing more and being able to do it better, I concur.  But they're not motivated now.

`00:18:50 I'm going to say something unpleasant to virtually everyone.  An individual who is unevaluated is out of control, period, that's just it.  They're out of control.  Secondly, these nation schools -- the problems that you for your professional life have been concerned with -- the learning of these low income youngsters -- I know you and all of us deeply care about -- I'll tell you that problem is not going to go away until some adults suffer when children don't learn.  And right now they don't.

GLASSMAN:  `00:19:17 Cindy, just kind of picking up on that.  There's another -- there's another possible approach to this, which is that currently teachers make an average of 51 thousand dollars a year.  That's more than some jobs, less than other jobs. 

`00:19:34 But what if we just raised the general level of teacher salaries and thereby perhaps attracted a higher level of individual, wouldn't that improve the performance of students?

BROWN:  `00:19:48 I think you need to raise the starting salaries of virtually all teachers and that alone will not improve the performance of students.  I really think -- we do need to attract more able young people and career changers into education.  Higher starting salaries would help do that.

`00:20:07 But we also need to have -- just like all of us  -- I've worked my entire life in the non-profit sector, others in the for profit sector.  I've been judged and gotten compensation based on my performance and I think that's what most people expect in their work lives today.

`00:20:28 And so it makes sense to reward people who do a super good job with extra pay.  For those who have shortcomings, they need to have the opportunity to improve their skill and that's what professional development -- frankly billions of professional development money in our education system.  Most of it's spent poorly.

`00:20:51 If we focused it better, used some of the formative assessments -- there's lots of testing that goes on that can inform teachers about when -- where they're students are learning -- you know, like the day after a little test is given or a week later.

`00:21:07 Teachers can see where their kids are falling down and then they can go get the training to do a better job of delivery.  So, teachers need a chance to improve their practice.  I know I'm a better professional, a more able professional today than I was 30 years ago.  And just like every other professional teachers will learn if they're motivated to learn.

GLASSMAN:  `00:21:31 Do you agree with that, Richard? In other words do teachers have the opportunity to improve and maybe even in some cases they're not picking it up and maybe they would if they had the incentive of extra pay down the road?

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:21:40 No, as I said before, I don't think that's key.  I think we need to separate, as I said, evaluation from compensation incentives.  We do need more evaluation of teachers and better evaluation of teachers.  And that evaluation should lead to instruction and training and better preparation of teachers.

[speaking over each other]

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:22:02 Let me finish.  But that's different from saying that we're going to somehow accomplish this with pay incentives.  If a teacher is evaluated and weaknesses are identified that teacher should be required to correct those weaknesses.  And that's the way a personnel system education should work.  We don't have the capacity now to identify teacher weaknesses.

GLASSMAN:  `00:22:23 Do you think there would be something actually destructive in some teachers making two or three times as much as other teachers?

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:22:29 First of all nobody is talking about that kind of pay for performance.

GLASSMAN:  `00:22:32 Let's say 50 percent more.

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:22:34 Nobody's even talking about that.  We're talking about very minor increments.

GUTHRIE: Regrettably.

[Speaking over each other)

GLASSMAN:  `00:22:43 There's one teacher that is making 50 percent more than another teacher and based on a perfected evaluation system that teacher is actually a lot better.  Do you think that would undermine whatever it is -- the kind of cohesion or social system among teachers. Would that be a bad thing?

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:23:00 I don't know.  It might not be.  But you know it's interesting   -- Cindy brought up Kip.  Kip doesn't use pay for performance.  They believe very much in the cohesion of teachers and this being a group endeavor, one that requires collaboration, so they do a lot of evaluation of teachers.  They do the holistic curriculum, the evaluation is not just based on test scores. But it doesn't' result in pay differences.

GLASSMAN:  `00:23:22 Kip is a private school --

BROWN:  `00:23:23 It's a charter management organization.

GUTHRIE:  `00:23:28 I believe fundamentally I disagree with Richard, because of -- Richard -- problems of motivation.  If you only evaluate teachers and tell Mrs. Jones you have to do X or Y, presently Mrs. Jones can flaunt that.  She can just disregard that and nothing happens to her.  She doesn't get fired.

`00:23:46 Now the difference is Kip -- they may not use performance pay, I don't know that, but I do know they let teachers go and teachers are evaluated and there are consequences if you're not good.  You lose your job.  And there are just not many public school teachers who ever lose their job, period, short of any moral turpitude.  They don't lose their jobs and they're -- Richard, they're just presently not under pressure to perform.

GLASSMAN:   `00:24:08 We're going to have to wrap this up.  I just want to focus on where we're going from a policy point of view.  It appears at any rate that the Obama Administration is, some people would say kind of building on what the Bush Administration did on accountability and some of these other issues.  I don't know do you agree with that Richard, do you see the Obama Administration moving on these same principles that teachers should be held accountable and that pay for performance may be one of the best ways to do that?

ROTHSTEIN:  `00:24:41 Well, I think unfortunately the Obama Administration is promoting a kind of pay for performance which is unduly reliant on test scores in math and reading.  As I've said I think one of the tragedies in American education in the last decade has been the narrowing of the curriculum.

`00:24:57 If the Obama Administration continues along this track, the curriculum will be further narrowed and will do even more harm to American education.

BROWN:  `00:25:05 Well, I just don't agree. I do believe that they are going in the direction you just described of more accountability, encouraging pay for performance more through incentives.  I actually think that the Obama Administration will propose and that Congress will join with them in modifying the accountability provisions that were in the No Child Left Behind act. 

`00:25:30 But I think they're going to put a lot more money on the table as incentives for experimentation, with pay for performance, with expanding charter skills, with many more innovations that we've yet to see but that they're putting money on the table actually through the stimulus that was passed last year.

GLASSMAN:  `00:25:52 But part of that -- putting money on the table, that money is going to go to experimentation with pay for performance.

BROWN:  `00:25:55 Exactly.  And to go back to one point Richard made earlier or someone made earlier.  These experiments don't all just reward individual teachers.  There are others --

[speaking over each other]

GUTHRIE: Most of them collective.

BROWN:  `00:26:14 -- right, they reward teachers school wide, so that if the science teacher was helping with the reading -- everybody shares in the gains that a school makes.

GLASSMAN:  `00:26:23 Jim, what is your response to the question that I asked?

GUTHRIE:  `00:26:27 The Obama Administration in my view has no choice.  Accountability and evaluation are not going to go away.  It'd be like telling the waves to roll back.  It's not going to happen.

`00:26:37 The question is how are we going to do it and can we perfect the means for doing it, do we continue to experiment and learn from it, that's the challenge.  This will be a place where serious research -- one of the few times in the history of American education  -- serious research has the prospect of making a serious difference.

GLASSMAN:  `00:26:53 Well, we're going to have to leave it there.  Thank you, Jim.  Thank you, Richard.  And thank you, Cindy.  And until next time for IDEAS IN ACTION, I'm Jim Glassman.

1 Comment

'd like to comment on the statement "I think the more likely assumption is that if individuals understand that their remuneration is going to be tied to their performance, they'll be more highly motivated to learn how to do it better."
Actually, 60 years of behavioral psychology research finds that the opposite is true; Extrinsic rewards reduce intrinsic motivation. Check the research of Richard Deci and Richard Ryan, e.g.
I wish the powers that be would get past the idea of holding carrots over teachers noses to fix a broken educational system.
Yes there are poor teachers and ways can be found to re-educate or fire them...
But realistically how is the teacher held responsible for a system that they are largely powerless to change ? An awful lot of what teachers have to contend with is predetermined without their input or consent.

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Featured Guests

Cynthia G. Brown

Vice President of Education at the Center for American Progress

Cynthia G. Brown is Vice President for Education Policy at The Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank. Prior to joining American Progress, she was an independent education consultant who advised and wrote for local and state school systems, education associations, foundations, nonprofit organizations, and a corporation. From 1986 through September 2001, Brown served as director of the Resource Center on Educational Equity of the Council of Chief State School Officers. She was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as the first assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education (1980).

James W. Guthrie

Senior Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute and professor of education at Southern Methodist University

James W. Guthrie is Senior Fellow and Director of Education Policy Studies at the George W. Bush Institute and a professor at the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education at Southern Methodist University. Previously, he was a professor of educational leadership and director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University. He is co-author with Patrick J. Schuermann of Successful School Leadership (Allyn & Bacon, 2009).

Richard Rothstein

research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and the former education columnist for The New York Times

Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC. From 1999 to 2002 he was the national education columnist of The New York Times. He is the author of Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right (Teachers College Press and EPI, 2008) and Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (Teachers College Press 2004).

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