Improving America’s Schools – Letter 1, Part 1 (Performance Pay)

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The following post is based on thoughts related to:

Letters to the Editor that the NY Times has recently received concerning public schools. The link is: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/17/opinion/l17educ.html?emc=eta1

Jacqueline Ancess writes, “In education, research on performance pay shows no substantive gains in student achievement, and all Mr. Obama’s policy will do is reinforce the ill-conceived notion that low-level standardized tests are a valid measure of student achievement. Instead, pay teachers a salary that signals teaching as a profession.”

The above comment has three areas that I want to address, performance pay, measuring student achievement, and professional pay. First, I will discuss performance pay.

When I was a teacher and young administrator I was a proponent and vocal advocate for individual performance pay for teachers. I believed that if my students outperformed your students that I should be paid more. Especially since as a rookie, and the lowest paid teacher on the campus, my students were some of the highest performers on the campus. Then the district I was working for at the time created a pilot program where campuses could create their own incentive programs and my campus choose to participate. We created a very objective and complicated system that rewarded teachers for individualized performance. The program was a smashing success and a dismal failure. It was a success for me personally, because as a big fish in a small pond, I gobbled up most of the incentive pay. It was a failure for the system because overall, campus performance did not change. And here is the reason why, individualized incentive plans create a disincentive to assist your peers. The bigger the financial prize for the individual, the bigger the disincentive to assist the group. So on the whole, I can not disagree with the research that Ms. Ancess references.

Unless…

Performance programs will move the needle on student performance when they are team based. That means that in order to earn the reward, the entire team has to be successful. When this occurs both individual and organizational goals align. If I want to earn the incentive then I have to help and support my peers. To do anything less jeopardizes my potential income. This is the same concept as playoff money in professional sports. Individual salaries may differ, but if the team makes the playoffs everyone gets an equal share of the reward.

My closing comment on performance plans is to point out that incentive plans are not a replacement for leadership. A campus with no plan and great leadership will outperform a campus with a great plan and poor leadership every time.

In my next posts I will discuss measuring student achievement and professional pay.

T.W.A. – Your turn…

House Calls
Improving America’s Schools – Letter 1, Part 2 (Measuring Student Achievement)

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