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.”

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