I heard an amazing story at a conference of educators I recently attended in Denver. A third-grade teacher from Jefferson County School District was relaying to the group his experiences in a federally funded experiment on teacher pay. In the program, teachers in certain high-poverty schools have the opportunity to earn bonuses ranging from $2,500 to $7,500 for achieving individual, team and school goals – in other words for raising scores on TCAP, Colorado’s standardized test. Researchers want to know if the pay increases will result in improved test scores for some of Colorado’s lowest-performing students.
The teacher, Matt, described how a little boy in his class developed a habit of getting up from his desk in the middle of lessons and work, hiding in the corner of the room and falling fast asleep.
After the third time this happened, Matt kept his student in from recess to talk with him about why he was having such a hard time staying awake. The little boy said that his mother worked at night, and that she often could not find anyone to stay with him and his sister, who was 10. When he and his sister were home alone at night he was afraid and could not sleep. At school, though, he knew he was safe and so there he slept, curled up in the corner of a classroom. Matt wasn’t sure what to do: let the boy sleep or wake him for the intensive reading instruction needed to help him score “proficient” on the TCAP.
Matt, whose individual, team and school goals – and therefore bonuses – may ride on that tired student’s TCAP reading score, decided that the boy needed to sleep.
When the conversation returned to the test results – which for some perverse reason have become the end-all be-all of public school in the United States – the results were inconclusive. Halfway through a five-year study, the test schools in JeffCo have had no sustainable or measurable improvement in scores.
Denver Public Schools moved to a pay-for-performance system in 2002 with the stated goals of increasing student performance (i.e., test scores) and increasing teacher pay. Neither goal has been achieved, though countless administrative staff has been hired to run the program.
Harrison School District has a pay-for-performance system tied in part to student performance on pre- and post-tests in every single class taught in the district, along with a variety of other factors. This program is the most comprehensive in the state – it’s guided by a 54-page instruction manual – and is also one of the most complex and controversial. Like Denver’s system, it takes a small army of human resource personnel to administer. Harrison’s achievement (again, this means TCAP scores) hovers just around the state average.
A multi-year study conducted by Vanderbilt University and the RAND Corp. in Tennessee schools shows similar results. Teachers on the whole are not hiding their talents away, waiting for bonuses in order to convince them to work harder or more effectively.
So how should teachers be paid? Most rational people agree they are underpaid, and I would challenge anyone who disagrees to spend a week in a classroom and then come talk to me.
Currently, most teachers are paid on a salary schedule that rewards education and experience. Historically, this system had two purposes: to prevent gender discrimination in pay and as a means to compensate a large group of people cheaply. In other words, school districts have never been able (or willing in some cases) to pay teachers what they were worth. Salary schedules are noncompetitive and non-market-based. It’s an old-school throwback, to be sure.
Pay-for-performance advocates believe that running schools like businesses and therefore paying teachers on a business model is the most logical form of compensation.
I suppose if the goal of public school were to make a profit this might make sense. If schools chose their “raw materials” in order to produce a “product” to sell in a competitive marketplace, paying the people who fashioned the product based on the final outcome might be the right way to go.
But the fact is, teachers and schools gladly take everyone and do the best they can with the children they have. It is not a market or a factory, and it never should be.
If districts want to pay teachers what they’re worth, I’ll be the first to agree to that. But if that means I have to wake an exhausted, impoverished third-grader so he can be “proficient” on some meaningless test, I’ll pass.
Elizabeth Collins teaches social studies at Durango High School. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.