Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Buck Stops Here Tying What Students Learn to What Educators Earn: Performance-Based Compensation Presents Enormous Potential as a Catalyst for Districtwide Change. but That Will Happen Only If We Manage to Avoid Repeating the Mistakes of the Past

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Buck Stops Here Tying What Students Learn to What Educators Earn: Performance-Based Compensation Presents Enormous Potential as a Catalyst for Districtwide Change. but That Will Happen Only If We Manage to Avoid Repeating the Mistakes of the Past

Article excerpt

Performance pay is being thrust center stage in federal efforts to reform education. But one over-arching challenge threatens the potential impact of this reform: Will performance pay be implemented in ways that are helpful to students and teachers, or will it continue to repeat the mistakes of the past, including the failed merit pay efforts of the early 1980s?

Too many approaches to compensation reform offer piecemeal solutions to improving the schools. They're the latest iteration of a recurring problem in education reform: the quick fix that doesn't fix.

Numerous efforts to link compensation and student learning have fallen short of their intended goals in the United States and the United Kingdom over a period of nearly 200 years. While the initiatives have varied, their potential has generally been undercut by their underlying assumptions.

Some approaches were predicated on the view that compensation is the leading incentive for teachers to perform at high levels. Yet, more is involved in providing incentives to teachers than compensation alone. Other approaches were punitive, punishing teachers who were considered underperformers. This is a major reason why teachers and unions have opposed efforts to link learning and compensation. Virtually all of the initiatives have assumed that performance pay could be implemented independently, without making major changes in how the rest of the district functions. These assumptions have proven to be faulty (Gratz 2009).

If we are to finally introduce meaningful compensation reform into the teaching profession, we must understand that the lesson of performance-based compensation is one of institutional change. As demonstrated in Denver and a few emerging practices elsewhere, sharpening the focus on student learning, and a teacher's contribution to it, can be a major trigger for change--if the initiative also addresses the district factors that shape the schools. Several key understandings flow from this finding.

Performance-based compensation involves a fundamental shift in school reform, moving away from the trend of adopting models and replicating programs, focusing instead on changing the conditions that make a difference for students and teachers. Because learning conditions and district capabilities differ significantly, each district has to customize this reform. A key for both the design and implementation of performance pay is to understand and address what's involved in customizing and supporting reform.

The Community Training & Assistance Center (CTAC) has assisted a range of districts and states, the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Department of Education to develop new methods of compensation that support students, educators, and organizational goals, including the landmark compensation reform in Denver. Based on this national experience, CTAC has identified six cornerstones that are the essence of compensation reform (Slotnik 2009).

CORNERSTONE #1. Performance-based compensation is a systemic reform.

Linking compensation and learning is neither a financial silver bullet nor a human capital magic wand. Performance-based compensation is more than an ingredient of reform; it drives systemic reform. This isn't because money alone motivates teachers, but because money catches and holds a district's attention.

The key is to use that attention as a lever for broader system changes. Isolating compensation reform from other school and classroom supports--and focusing on rewards tied to achievement as measured solely with standardized tests--has a long history of controversy and failure rather than improved schools and greater teacher effectiveness. Simply put, a district can't change how a workforce will be compensated without making major changes in the rest of the organization.

A systemic approach to this reform involves making far-reaching changes in district systems--from revitalizing instruction to rethinking assessment practices, from providing professional development that actually responds to school-identified needs to making human resources relevant to a changing teaching force--so that the systems are more demonstrably effective in strengthening the classrooms. …

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