Performance Pay for Teachers

For the past nine weeks, three other public policy students and I have been working madly on a report for Mountain View Whisman School District in which we advise them on whether they should implement a pay-for-performance system. It was our senior year public policy capstone class that crammed three big learning experiences into one – learning all about a subject (performance pay), all about group dynamics, and all about what it means to collect all sorts of data and analyze them in a policy report. And then they tagged on presentation skills at the end, when we gave a powerpoint to the district and the pubpol program.

Blognote: this post debuts a new category – education – which I’ve actually thought a lot about and intend to write more on.

With our report, it felt like we were given a solution looking for a problem. Performance pay is a policy idea that’s thrown around and we had to figure out how it fit into the needs of a particular district. Since problem-solving is actually the goal, I think it’s wayyy better to identify the specific problems and the go looking for solutions. Performance pay then is one of many in a toolkit of policy options. We didn’t get to go about it that way, mainly because the role of an outside advisor/consultant/unpaid-undergraduate-laborer is to look at one specific policy option, while the district gets to consider many.

So my ideal approach would have been – how do you improve student achievement? Well, you want good teachers. So how do you make sure you have good teachers? Well, first you have to determine what makes a teacher good, which means you have to figure out how to measure them. There’s a lot of discussion around test scores and principal evaluations and such, but I think there’s definitely some way to grade teachers with some portfolio of measurements.

Then, you know who your good teachers are. So is there a way to make your other teachers better? Does that mean we need better teacher schools? Or have higher credential standards for teachers. Or offer professional development? How do we make sure our schools have a culture of continuous improvement, where all the teachers all the time are analyzing what they’re doing and trying to figure out how to do it better?

In this context, then you start getting into pay. Here is a really interesting and compelling talk on how to think of pay and how it links to motivation and work. Teachers work pretty hard already – giving them more money just to work harder is not really the point.

What’s a much better and more constructive approach is to find all sorts of ways to, like I said, build a culture of continuous improvement, self-criticism, and collaboration. Every day, every week, every month, every year, teachers should be thinking “how could I do this better?” No single teacher can dream up every solution – so they should be excited to seek out other techniques, either by asking other teachers, going to training events, reading about teaching strategies, etc.

In the same way a musician needs to push themselves to the next level by ratcheting up the metronome for those difficult licks, or an athlete keeps a log of mile times as they try to run a little bit faster, if teachers strive to be the best they can by being open to new techniques and trying them out all the time, then we’re most of the way there.

Pay can reward these kinds of improvement efforts and encourage more of them. Or it can enable them – if you need some funds to pursue certain types of training or certification, or don’t have enough planning time.

To conclude, I feel like the policy, as it is commonly talked about these days, comes at it in all the wrong ways. If you just think that you need to add a variable pay element to the salary, you’re assuming that teachers know how to teach well, that they aren’t teaching well, and that pay will make them teach better. Instead, you should look at how to both provide supports for them to figure out how to teach better and to cultivate a culture of improvement.

Our report didn’t exactly go about it this way because of constraints placed on us though I did make an effort to work in some of these principles. You can read the report here (pdf, ~1MB). It has an executive summary for those who don’t want to read 40 pages. It’s not a perfect or comprehensive analysis (we only had 9 weeks), but I think it does a decent job of looking at some of the research and performance pay designs.

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