Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Full Steam Ahead: Ignoring the Evidence on Performance Pay

Piles of Education Research
My letter to the editor (below) was published this week in the Janesville Gazette:
Janesville School District officials are pitching a pay-for-performance teacher salary structure not supported by educational reasoning or research. 
The proposed Professional Performance Structure (PPS) will move my kids’ district from a simple, fair, objective and efficient teacher salary schedule to an unproven, complicated, labor-intensive, divisive and stack-ranked pay system. While the proposal may please free-market ideologues, it will not better motivate teachers and improve my kids’ district.
Our local officials, who tout evidence-based leadership, should yield to the motivational and educational evidence related to merit pay. Overwhelmingly, the motivational research shows labor involving highly cognitive skills—such as teaching—does not improve with incentivized pay. Dozens and decades of teacher merit pay schemes have failed to improve student achievement. Local school leaders have yet to produce substantial educational research to support this radical reform proposal. 
Beyond measure are the adverse effects PPS would have on the collaborative learning environment most parents want for their kids. The byproducts of PPS—stress, fear, competitiveness, erraticism and adversarialism—have no place in a nurturing school environment. 
Lastly, labor-intensive attempts to make a fair system of merit pay, like PPS, are an imprudent use of precious public-school energies and resources. Janesville should not get caught up in the ideologically induced teacher accountability craze distracting districts across this nation. Instead of creating more bureaucracy, local officials and teachers should be collaborating to reverse the tide of declining public-school resources and mitigate the powerful effects rising student poverty has on student learning.
Of course, this topic is much deeper than the 250-word limit for the letter to the editor.

wrote at length about pay-for-performance (PfP) schemes in education about a year ago when I first got wind my kids' district was looking at revamping the teacher salary structure.

I have written and spoken to board members and school leaders on multiple occasions over the past year about the proven pitfalls related to PfP. Last winter, my district's superintendent and a couple of her administrative team members tasked out on creating a new teacher salary structure heard me out. While I knew the anti-PfP research and reasoning was not powerful enough to hold back the political forces pushing forward incentivized and disincentivized pay, I had hoped I would be involved as the process rolled forward.

Disappointedly, I was not invited to be part of an ad hoc team formed to consult on the developing PfP plan for teachers. Surprisingly to many, the make up of this consulting team was not even announced until after the group had already met twice. Even more discouraging is the absence of teacher union leadership from the ad hoc team. I do not know for sure why union leaders were not invited to be part of this team, but this unprecedented snub–made possible by Act 10–sure feels like anti-unionism.

This past month the district unveiled the much anticipated draft of the Professional Performance Structure. As expected, the Gazette's editorial board has jumped on board. Holding teachers more accountable and paying teachers according to performance makes sense to them and many outside the education world. The local power players are on board. Full steam ahead.

Conventional wisdom on this matter does not, however, sync with the reality of public education. In my kids' district, motivational and educational research is being shelved for an unproven idea that sounds good to non-educators.

This salary reform effort is not worth the energy and resources of a district facing significant budget shortfalls and increasing demands brought on by rising student poverty. PPS is an attempted fix on what is not broken. Teachers were already motivated under the previous salary system that provided the same financial security afforded almost all other highly-educated professionals. Furthermore, instead of focusing on needy kids, administrators will be expending unhealthy amounts of time trying to keep up with teacher evaluation demands of PPS.

While we do play at school, we are not playing school. Teaching and learning are extremely complex. Measuring either is like trying to measure love. Evaluating the worth of a teacher is a non-scientific guess. Teachers serve an immensely complex variety of learners from a variety of backgrounds. Consequently and expectedly, teachers are heroes to some students and zeroes to others. Simply put, my kids' district is not capable of taking this immensely complex social construct and reconstructing it fairly into a stack ranking pay system.

Also concerning is how PPS will value one style of teacher and conversely devalue the worth of another. This devaluing is a disruption to the professional learning community model desired by most professional educators. I work with mostly altruistic professionals who value teamwork over competition. Even private sector work places have discovered the perils of stack ranking systems, like PPS.

In parting, it is worth noting the hypocrisy of conservatives ardently supporting new, heavy-handed regulations and accountability measures for teachers, when the conservatives traditionally bemoan almost all forms of government regulation. Predictably, PPS will require more government bureaucracy. Why the reversal in ideology? They tell us it is all about the kids.  I have my doubts.

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