Should teacher pay be based on student performance?

Critics say it’ll turn focus to standardized testing and scare teachers away from ‘tough’ schools


Back in the fall of 2007, Barack Obama was vocal in his support of merit-pay for teachers. “If you excel at helping your students achieve success, your success will be valued and rewarded as well,” he told a crowd of teachers in Philadelphia. In doing so, Obama reignited the debate, one that has been bandied about for decades, over whether student performance should affect a teacher’s compensation. A discussion, some say, that will soon make its way to Canada. “Parents have often said that some sort of teacher compensation for excellence would be a desirable thing,” says Elizabeth Bredberg, president of the Kelowna-based Society of the Advancement of Excellence in Education. Nearly 40 per cent of teachers surveyed by SAEE said the performance of their students should be a key factor in determining their pay. And yet, according to SAEE, there’s no proof that pay-for-performance programs make schools a better place.

Beyond the Grid: A Canadian Look at the Terrain of Teacher Compensation, evaluates the efficacy of six U.S. pay-for-performance programs, including a Denver school board initiative that Obama referenced on the campaign trail. The programs add bonuses or enhancements to the traditional model, which aligns pay with experience and qualifications. “There really is no robust linkage between incentive programs and student improvement,” she says. The study also raises concerns about the programs themselves. The trouble, says Bredberg, is that there is no hard-and-fast model for measuring teacher performance or student achievement. And no matter what mechanism a school district settles on, implementing it relies on frequent evaluation, often through standardized testing: “We may find ourselves really overburdened with the task of assessment, and really just teach to assessment,” she says.

Teachers unions, not surprisingly, are against offering monetary rewards for teacher performance. The fear, says Frank Bruseker, president of the Alberta Teachers Association, is that compensation for student achievement will keep teachers away from more difficult schools, and remove the incentive for working with struggling students. “As soon as you put something in place that can be manipulated, people will attempt to manipulate the system,” he says.

Despite support for merit-pay programs among many parents, Bredberg says opposition from Canadian teachers means government would be ill advised to push the issue. Unlike in the U.S., where belonging to a teachers’ federations is optional—in fact, some jurisdictions don’t even have any—in Canada, mandatory membership and a history of cohesiveness mean that teachers’ unions wield tremendous power. Bredberg recommends focusing on “less controversial and potentially more productive” alternatives. While the majority of teachers polled by SAEE were against having their performance assessed for compensation, Bredberg says they did express a desire for increased evaluation—be it from their peers or a mentor—for professional development. “Historically, teachers have been rather soloists,” she says. “But I think that’s changing.”


Should teacher pay be based on student performance?

  1. So when are we going to institute performance-based pay for politicians, based on the number of bills successfully passed, or their popularity in the polls? And performance-based pay for transit workers, based on their on-time performance? (No, weather is their own problem, not our problem.)

    Oh, wait — and what about performance-based pay for journalists, based on page hits and positive/negative comments from readers?

    Funny how it’s only teachers who are expected to be paid based on someone else’s performance.

  2. Everyone should be measured for performance. Difficult schools may have lower scores but then the measurement should be on improvement – not an arbitrary standard. Students are measured at the beginning of the year and at the end. The teacher’s whose classes improve over the year the most are recognized/rewarded.

  3. The point is that “performance” based on how other people do is unfair and arbitrary. How do you compare “improvement”? If a teacher started with a class with a C average, and moved them up to a B+ average, would that be better or worse than a teacher who started with a B average and moved them up to an A+ average?

    And I’d like to hear your analogous performance measurement is for, say, MPs and senators. Is Mike Duffy earning his pay or not?

  4. Let’s hope teachers and students here don’t have to suffer more pain from political reformer governments. McGuinty got in on education reform and the result was a mess of split primary classrooms, upteen million teacher strikes, and reduced childcare (that is an education expense). That is, it the Ontario Liberals try to win votes using Education they screw up the system as badly as their predecessor, the The Harris Conservatives. Obama is JUST and BAD– trying to win votes through education reform. The system itself, the people in it, should be the ones proposing reforms.

    I don’t hear teachers calling out for a meritocracy, therefore the Idea has no Merit.

  5. And I think that is not quite true that teacher’s have been ‘soloists’. Teaching is a profession, one of the honoured professions. Of course teachers would express a desire for professional development, one aspect of which is assessment of current skills. I think the SAEE survey is rather skewed to reduce the status of Teachers. That’s what happens with these lobby groups: they have to reduce people so they can lift them up and justify their existence. The teacher’s federations, the teacher’s Colleges, they are the right voices to listen to on these survey points.

  6. What nonsense. Another instance of Obama not being worth the hype. Obviously, if you attach pay to “performance” in such a way (as if performance isn’t already being evaluated), the bad schools will be vacated. And if anyone says, well teacher’s should be out to fix them blah blah, Id like to ask: are you pursuing your job for that reason? with an expectation of diminishing returns? Of course not.

  7. @M@ – senators are a whole other issue. I think elections are a measurement tool for MPs perfect system -no. but it’s the best we’ve got. What form of measurement do we have for teachers?

    I might be opening myself up for attack, but i’m from a corporate learning environment where there is measurement and metrics against course material and instructors. Everything is measured. Are they accurate? How well do they reflect the true picture? Pretty well, but we also continuously look to revise and improve them to provide a better picture. If I want to improve on something I need a measuring stick. To improve our education system, we need to measure it.

    Is it harder to move from a C to B+ or an B to a+, I don’t know. I honestly think teachers should be the ones to determine that. Statistical data could help determine how rarely that happens. If a teacher can raise their class’ level of literacy shouldn’t they be rewarded better than those that just go through the motions and mail it in? I would imagine this measurement would be complicated and might take in many factors. In a corporate environment a weak performer is eliminated. Is this the case with teachers? I never hear of teachers being dismissed unless it’s for something scandalous.

    I’m not anti-teacher, I believe teaching is a noble and critical profession. Perhaps I am a bit anti-union. I am very pro-education and that is why I see it critical to find and reward the best at their profession, perhaps even drawing others to the profession.

  8. Fair enough, Shaun; although I do not share your confidence in the corporate system, I agree that performance metrics can and should exist for most jobs.

    Where I disagree is where we use class performance as a metric. In some cases, sure, it might reflect a teacher’s abilities and success; in others, it might not. It would make more sense to use in-classroom observations and the teacher’s own educational qualifications as objective metrics of their skills and knowledge — which is the (admittedly imperfect) system we now have.

    But here’s the other side of the issue, and the side that I’m sure the unions are unhappy with. Get a government who sees teacher wages, for whatever reason, as being wildly out of control. All they have to do is make their pay dependent on their classes’ performance on standardized testing, and then ratchet up the difficulty of the standardized tests. The budget for teacher salaries could easily be “adjusted” this way.

    • The problem with standardized testing is that it forces teachers to ‘teach to the test’ to meet a political agenda. The progess of the regular curriculum is compromised. Standardized tests are not the best measures of performance. Like surveys, the questions asked skew the result, a result that doesn’t show the gains that really mean something in the continuum of progress. The grade reports that are databased and analyzed indicate how well students are doing. Already, all teachers contribute grades against benchmarks in every subject for every child, 3 times a year. We know enough already about how teachers and children are doing. Entrenching more standardized tests or performance tests is a waste of time.

  9. I might be asking for trouble, but what’s the problem with “teach to the test”? A test written by politicians is a problem but a well-designed test should give the students a proper standard to achieve. An improper test means an improper curriculum. The problem lies in the test authors and their intentions. How do we expose that or make that process more accountable?

    Teacher salaries like any other form of compensation should be on the basis of supply and demand. If there are too few teachers then it needs to be raised, too many, then perhaps it stays flat. Gaming the system is usually the response to an ill-advised blanket blanket policy. A well-designed and cooperatively created measurement tool should help avoid gaming.

    Keeping the measurement tools in the hands of the educators seems like a reasonable way to keep things realistic while holding students and teachers to a standard.

  10. Judging by all the typos and incomplete sentences in some of these posts, perhaps better standardized testing has been necessary for quite some time now.

  11. This topic is what I would call an “intellectual tarbaby”. No matter how smart and articulate you are, when you try to grab hold of the issue of rewarding teachers for good student performance, you’re going to get all gummed up. There are just too many variables, and here are just a few. As a teacher you work with colleagues – do you share (ideas, resources, etc.) with them and help them improve and succeed? Or do you hope they’ll fail, so you look good? Can you be a successful teacher in a school with mediocre or crappy administrators (including ones who play favourites)? Can you be a truly successful teacher in a province that chronically underfunds education (e.g. by failing to fund full-day kindergarten)? If you’re given a new teaching assignment, and have to develop a new programme from scratch, will that be taken into account when assessing your performance? I could go on., but you get the idea.

    This isn’t “special pleading” from a teacher who is making excuses for poor performance. I’m a retired teacher – any poor performance on my part is long past (and was only partially my fault).

  12. this article is so biased

  13. NO, a teacher's pay should not be based on a students' performance!__Teachers need the cooperation, the willingness, and repect from the students. I think the elected officials should come down south I mean way down south (Dade) spend a week (or a day) in a classroom teaching students to experience what our teachers are under going while trying to educate students. It's not easy! Teachers are not respected or appreciated. Teachers need the support of parents, city, state and country. Teaching conditions and cooperation should be better for them. Work with the teachers not against them. cwthomas__

  14. If this was the case what would stop teachers from “fudging” marks or giving their students higher grades to make themselves look better and receive better pay?

    If the teacher who taught those students the previous year did a horrible job, why should their new teacher be punished because someone else did a not do their job properly?

    Many classrooms have multiple special needs students or EAL students and have one or no assistants at all. Why should those teachers be punished because the government is is not providing an appropriate amount of resources?

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