A new Canadian study, “Teacher Incentive Pay That Works,” produced by Vicki Alger for the Fraser Institute, contends that performance bonuses and other incentives for teachers would improve teaching and ultimately student achievement standards. Since performance-based rewards are common in other professions, Alger makes the case that they should be adopted in education, as a means of ensuring that our students remain “competitive” on the world stage.
Making the case for Teacher Merit Pay is popular in certain circles outside of education. It may be a noble idea, designed to reward the high performers, but it tends to fall apart when we turn to the formidable challenge of implementation in the schools.
Two critical questions arise: Would teachers respond to Teacher Pay Incentives by improving their teaching and focusing more on the performance of their students? And, if so, should we tie teacher evaluation and salary increases, in part, to student performance levels? The Fraser Institute says “Yes,” but the current research on improving teacher quality indicates otherwise.
Most of the proposed and implemented schemes linking teacher evaluation/compensation with student performance levels are, in the words of leading Australian researcher Stephen Dinham, “half-baked plans.” While the Fraser Institute researchers review ten global case studies, they are only able to identify three or four that are working effectively, namely those in Washington (DC), Dallas (TX), Chile, and the United Kingdom. The Washington, DC, IMPACT Program, for example, was born out of a well-publicized “student performance crisis” during Commissioner Michelle Rhee’s short-lived tenure and the jury is still out on its ultimate effectiveness.
Teaching matters – and far more than North American ‘progressive” educators were ever prepared to admit. The prevailing notion, widely held since the 1960s, was that socio-economic status disadvantage (SES) was the main determinant of student performance. For students from disadvantages backgrounds and communities, SES and family background were like “life sentences.” Recent research over the past 20 years, synthesized by New Zealander John Hattie, has essentially rejected that presumption. Poor student achievement, we know know, is far more spread out across the full SES spectrum.
What really matters in influencing and determining student achievement? Since the 2008 book Visible Learning by John Hattie, we can answer that question with far more certainty. Based upon a synthesis of hundreds of studies, Hattie has demonstrated that teachers and teaching really do matter. Although about 50 per cent of student performance is closely related to SES, prior learning, and home expectations, about 30 per cent of the achievement variance is determined by the quality of teaching. School leadership, resources, and supports represent about 20 % of the variance.
Teacher incentive and rewards programs may well work, but not the kind proposed by the Fraser Institute. Indeed, leading Teacher Quality researchers Hattie and Dinham have both set out teacher improvement plans with a more convincing rationale, based upon actual in-school research. That’s why it’s a bit shocking not to find either Hattie or Dinham even referenced in the Fraser Institute study.
The Australian “Career Ladder” Teacher Performance plan and salary scale, initiated by Dr. Stephen Dinham, in 2009, is far superior to any referenced in the Fraser Institute study. Like the preferred Fraser Institute models, it is aimed at raising teaching standards and tied, in part, to student performance data. Where it differs is in its far more sophisticated and nuanced approach to fostering both higher quality teaching and professional growth. Instead of jettisoning established salary scales, the Australian model builds in a more flexible, competency-based ladder to minimize the role of seniority in the career progression.
Here’s how it works. Clear national performance standards are established for Australian teachers, with five levels reflecting stages of professional competence and development. The teaching categories are: C1: Graduate/Certified; C2: Proficient (Regular); c3: Highly Proficient (Growth-Oriented); C4: Lead Teacher; and C5: School Leader. You progress up the salary scale by achieving higher levels of competency, but are not rewarded unless and until you meet higher level teaching standards. Standardized test results documenting student performance levels are used, in moderation, as one indicator among several of teacher quality and effectiveness.
The Australian plan may retain the familiar grid, but it also provides a pay-for-performance incentive. Salaries are calibrated according to professional performance levels akin to the professorial career ladder. In the model, C1 teachers at $30,000 = 1.0; C2 teachers are 1.25 ($37,500); C3 teachers are 2.0 ($60,000); C4 teachers are 2.5 ($75.000); and C5 lead teachers are 3.0 ($9o,000). Teachers who demonstrate excellence and professional growth can be accelerated to higher levels; those who simply conform or stagnate are plateaued or assigned to a lower salary level. Extremely talented teachers rise rapidly and stagnant teachers are, over a number of years, counselled out of the profession.
Improving the quality of teaching is now finally rising to the top of the Canadian education policy agenda. Adopting “half-baked” schemes such as those currently being piloted or implemented in numerous American states is definitely not the way to go for our provincial systems. In most of the best programs, student performance results are factored in, so the testing systems are critical to establishing benchmarks in a wider array of subjects, from elementary literacy and numeracy to high school subject exit exams. Phasing out standardized tests makes little sense if you are serious about eventually factoring student performance into teacher assessment and compensation.
What might actually work to improve the quality of teaching in the schools? Should we start by establishing professional teaching standards along the career ladder? If the teacher salary grid was retained, but re-engineered around teacher competencies and performance levels, would teachers embrace that opportunity? How long might it take to establish a set of student performance benchmarks that could reliably be integrated into teacher performance/compensation programs?