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It’s More Than Money

Making Performance-Based Compensation Work

SOURCE: AP/L.G. Patterson

West Boulevard Elementary teacher Steven Cook calls on one of the students of his first grade class.

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Read the full report (pdf)

Download the executive summary (pdf)

Read also: Aligned by Design: How Teacher Compensation Reform Can Support and Reinforce Other Educational Reforms, by Craig Jerald

Discussions on educator pay-for-performance are heating up in Washington and in state houses around the country. Yet the national discussion is showing evidence of the same misconceptions about compensation reform that led to the demise of earlier efforts to introduce performance-based compensation in America’s schools.

Too many proposals disregard the fundamentals of large-scale change in systems. They offer piecemeal solutions to closing the achievement gap and improving teacher quality without sufficiently understanding the challenges of implementation and sustainability, or the effect—both intended and unintended—on students, teachers, and schools. These proposals are essentially the latest iteration of a long-recurring problem in education reform: the quick fix that doesn’t fix.

Gaps between the goals of compensation policy and practice on the one hand and organizational results on the other have characteristically come from under-conceptualizing what is involved in performance-based compensation. These gaps generally come from three underlying assumptions.

First, many past and current initiatives have been based on the belief that compensation is the primary incentive for teachers to perform at higher levels. This belief has generated a simplistic debate over how much is too much and how much is too little in the way of incentives. It perpetuates a consistent misperception about motivation because more is involved in providing incentives to teachers than money alone.

Second, numerous approaches have been punitive or simplistic in design, implementation, or marketing. This is one reason that teachers and unions have frequently opposed efforts to link learning and compensation. Teachers have often seen these efforts as professionally insulting and as misunderstanding what leads to improved performance.

Third, most districts have treated performance-based compensation as a reform that can be implemented essentially as a stand-alone initiative, without making major changes in how the rest of the district functions. Such assumptions have proven flawed.

The impact of performance-based compensation comes from anticipating the consequences of the reform for the entire district. Performance-based compensation involves more than recognizing excellence in teaching; it should expand the system’s overall capacity to support classrooms and improve teaching quality. An effective and sustainable strategy for recruiting, retaining, and rewarding excellence in teaching will provide a fertile ground where teaching thrives as a profession and is nurtured at a greater level of excellence and scale.

We cannot squander yet another opportunity to introduce meaningful performance-based compensation into the teaching profession. Instead, we need to ensure that efforts are formulated on the basis of the best practices that we have to date, and that they avoid the known and recurring pitfalls. This recognition is particularly critical given the mounting interest in integrating human capital reform with school improvement in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Six cornerstones of an effective performance-based compensation system

The lesson of performance-based compensation is one of institutional change. A focus on student learning, and a teacher’s contribution to such learning, can be a significant catalyst for system-wide change—if the initiative also addresses the district factors that shape each school. The six cornerstones of performance-based compensation are at the heart of this finding and the essence of this reform:

  • Performance-based compensation is a systemic reform.
  • Compensation reform must be done with teachers, not to teachers.
  • Compensation reform must be organizationally sustainable.
  • Performance-based compensation must be financially sustainable.
  • A broad base of support is required in the district and community.
  • Performance-based compensation must go beyond politics and finances to benefit students.

Connecting teacher compensation to classroom, school, and district effectiveness is a step forward in thinking, but it requires an even more significant leap forward in implementation know-how, institutional change, and policy development. The cornerstones provide the basis for developing district and state capacity to implement and sustain innovative practices, and to be accountable for improving student achievement. The cornerstones have specifically evolved from the Community Training and Assistance Center’s 30 years of experience in national school reform.

The challenge ahead for both district practice and public policy is to successfully overcome the misunderstandings and myths surrounding the link between what teachers earn and what students learn, and to create the conditions needed to realize the potential of performance-based compensation.

Read the full report (pdf)

Download the executive summary (pdf)

Read also: Aligned by Design: How Teacher Compensation Reform Can Support and Reinforce Other Educational Reforms, by Craig Jerald

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education, poverty)
202.478.6331 or apreiss@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi (immigration, race and ethnicity)
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org