Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Performance Pay for Teachers: The Standards Movement's Last Stand?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Performance Pay for Teachers: The Standards Movement's Last Stand?

Article excerpt

Of all the consequences of the standards movement, pay-by-performance will be the most destructive: of education, of teachers' careers, of students' opportunities, Mr. Holt warns. The U.S. would be unwise to ignore the lessons of history.

DESPITE THE support of Congress, a compliant press, and the relentless creation of targets, tests, and benchmarks, it looks as if the Great Standards Project is faltering. Not a single one of the goals set for the year 2000 is within sight. The results of state tests only confirm what we already knew: schools do well in leafy suburbs and badly in East Saint Louis. And perhaps most significant of all, the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup survey of public attitudes showed solid public backing for a balanced curriculum, assessment based on classroom performance rather than on tests, and improvement to the existing system rather than the continuing rhetoric of reform.1

But if the standards movement is faltering, it certainly isn't foundering. Having done their best to demoralize schools and give the phrase "testing to destruction" a new meaning, there's one last aspect of civilized education that the Standardistos have in their sights: the sense of trust and cooperation among teachers. At the third National Education Summit in 1999, the assembled governors and business leaders resolved to set up a system of "rewards and consequences" for teachers - "competitive salary structures" that will tie teacher salaries to student achievement and "provide salary credit for professional development only when it is standards-based."2

It is a desperate measure, but it has strong bipartisan support and the fervent attention of corporate America. Business leaders "will help interested school systems . . . incorporate pay-for-performance incentive plans into their salary structures, based on lessons learned from the private sector." But there's the fatal flaw. Research shows that the main lesson to be learned from business experience with merit pay is that it doesn't work. In fact, it does more harm than good.3 As Philip Slater concludes, "Using money as a motivator leads to a progressive degradation in the quality of everything produced."4

Standards-based education and performance-based pay raise two connected issues: the nature of a system and the significance of a performance. The true believers in merit pay assume that the educational transaction is a simple interaction between student and teacher. Improving it is thus a matter of jolting the student (by such threats as no social promotion) and reconstructing the teacher (by encouraging the acquisition of new "skills" - a slippery word that appears to solve all problems but only raises new ones).

It's an attractive exercise in reductionism, but it doesn't ring true. Students and teachers are only two elements in a much wider scheme of things. The response of students can depend on whether they ate breakfast, whether they are bullied in the hallways, whether they play on a school team. Whatever the students' innate capacity, these factors will influence the way they perform. The performance of teachers will depend on the time available for preparation, their sense of ownership of the subject matter, the tone of the class and of the school, and their understanding of curriculum in its broadest sense.

In short, when we measure student performance, we are measuring the response not of an isolated individual but of the system at that moment as it impinges on the student. Similarly, the teacher is not an isolated player but stands at the sharp end of a system that stretches from the principal to the school board and beyond. The comparative assessment of merit, whether of student or teacher, is inherently subjective and unreliable.5

It follows that any proposal to link pay to a performance-based audit deserves the utmost attention, and the scheme recently advanced by Allan Odden and Carolyn Kelley falls into this category. …

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