Tying Teacher Pay To Student Performance Can Benefit All

Based on comments from the United States Secretary of Education and many of our state governors, tying teacher pay to student academic outcomes will be a high priority during the next several years.  Certainly, the effort carries a common sense weight that makes it hard to disagree with the idea: Why should we not, after all, pay our best teachers more for the good work they do helping students to succeed academically?  However, like most common sense ideas, there is an aspect of the “devil in the details” regarding implementation because we do not—in our zeal to help our students and reward excellent teachers—want to inadvertently create a system that harms both, and teachers and their unions generally point to two problems that must be resolved for the system to work properly.

The first objection to tying teacher pay to student academic outcomes is a simple one: Should teachers be paid less because they are teaching students with academic difficulties who may perform more poorly than their peers?  Moreover, will this cause teachers to shun districts with historically low academic achievement, further exacerbating problems with bringing top talent onto these schools’ faculties?   Even worse, will a system of tying teacher pay to student outcomes provide any unwanted incentive for teachers or schools to “push out” academically-challenged students by somehow encouraging transfers to “someone else’s” classroom or district?

Also, given that standardized tests are not administered each school year, the basic question of what measures go into assessing year-to-year student outcomes becomes of paramount importance for any incentive pay system.  Should it be based on student grades, local assessments of some sort, committee evaluations, standardized test data, some combination of all—or an entirely new measurement yet to be developed?  Just getting all parties to agree how to measure a student’s progress from one year to the next could be a deal breaker or delay implementation for the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, recognizing both concerns are legitimate, it may be easy enough to address them by deftly reversing the equation: rather than tying payments to future academic improvements, perhaps it would be infinitely more simple and effective to tie incentive pay to past student performance.

First off, let’s agree that we want to avoid reinventing the wheel by creating a burdensome parallel system of student evaluation that will likely turn into a protracted argument between teacher unions, local boards of education, state legislators, and federal bureaucrats.  If we are sincere about rewarding out best teachers, nothing could more quickly kill the idea, and we will be left stranded with the current system—which amounts to the worst classroom teachers receiving exactly the same pay as our best.

Let’s instead look to the standardized tests that are already administered as part of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for our benchmark and solution.  It is fairly simple, from a data analytic standpoint, to develop a composite score of a teacher’s pupil roster that will provide a clear snapshot of group academic achievement.  With this information in hand, we can set a benchmark number from which to manage the pay incentive system.  Using the composite score data as a guide, we can generate a bonus payment based on how far that teacher’s combined pupil roster fell below the benchmark on their last round of tests.  In fact, if we want to encourage more of our excellent teachers to work with our most at-risk students, we can easily tweak the benchmark for the composite score to make it easier for teachers who work with at-risk students to earn bonus payments.

In terms of a long range assessment, when the next round of standardized tests is administered, it should be fairly simple at that point to track student progress for each teacher based on the same composite test scores generated to guide the initial bonus payments, allowing us to identify which teachers did the best work at helping their students to improve.  Whether this information is used to generate additional bonus payments to teachers based out outcome data, guide future classroom assignments, or a combination of the two, it will allow the system to be further refined for the benefit of our students.

Is this a perfect system?  No, it is not for the simple reason there is no perfect system—every incentive pay structure for teachers involves some give and take from all involved.  However, if we want something with which we can hit the ground running today that will not involve anything more than some additional analysis of existing data sets and has the potential for quickly putting more of our best teachers in the classroom with the students who most need them, it may be worth careful consideration as we move forward.  Certainly, the pressure is there—not only from the Department of Education and state governors but also from our communities—to find a way to reward our best teachers for the work they do helping our children to secure the brightest possible futures for themselves and our nation.

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