How Compensation Reforms Can Improve Education

A CAP event probes ways to implement and improve pay-for-performance programs in order to improve teaching and learning in public schools.



“It’s easier to find Osama Bin Laden” than to find an acceptable definition of teacher excellence, said William J. Slotnik, the executive director of the Community Training and Assistance Center when explaining why pay-for-performance programs are difficult to implement at a Center for American Progress panel event on teacher compensation reform.

The event was held in conjunction with the release of two reports published by the Center last Monday on pay-for-performance programs: “It’s More Than Money” and “Aligned by Design,” authored respectively by Slotnik and Craig Jerald, president of Break the Curve Consulting.

Alma Velez, a master teacher in the Teacher Advancement Program at Anson Jones Elementary School in Bryan, Texas, and Rob Weil, the deputy director for the Educational Issues Department at the American Federation of Teachers, joined Jerald and Slotnik on the four-member panel. The Center’s Associate Director for Teacher Quality, Robin Chait, served as moderator.

Jerald provided important context for the discussion by commenting on the weaknesses of the single-salary schedule. He argued that such pay rewards only experience and graduate education courses, which have been found to be weakly or negatively associated with student achievement, provides no flexibility for administrators, offers teachers no financial incentive to improve their effectiveness, and undermines recruitment and retention of talented college graduates.

Slotnik then explained the importance of aligning compensation reforms with schools’ and districts’ strategic priorities and with other human resource policies. When compensation reforms are aligned with these other policies, the school and districts’ policies work together to drive toward a vision of good instruction.

Slotnik put forth six cornerstones at the heart of such reform, two of which were “reform done with teachers, not to teachers,” and reform that is “organizationally sustainable.” He also said that one “can’t change how several thousand people are getting paid without making other changes in the organization.” He added that incentive pay can be a “catalyst” in a system of reform, but it cannot stand alone.

Weil agreed that comprehensive reform was needed, and explained that financial incentives alone are not enough to bring about substantive change in schools. “If you think you are going to improve schools by making teachers worry about their compensation every day, then you are fooling yourself.” He added that incentives must be aligned so teachers can worry about whether they are doing what is best for their kids, and pay should then follow from that.

Jerald argued for using “instructional leadership” by teachers to improve evaluations and relieve some of the duties of principals, who he said are overburdened by current evaluation systems. Velez fills the role of an instructional leader at a school that uses the Teacher Advancement Program—a comprehensive school reform system that includes performance-based pay. She explained how it affects instruction in her school and the additional responsibilities it creates for her. “We spend a lot of time up front going over the rubrics so that teachers are fully aware of what we expect to be going on in the classroom,” she said.

Slotnik explained that the purpose of incentive-based pay is often misunderstood. “The goal is not to reward teaching excellence; it is to increase the amount of teaching excellence,” he said. Doing so, said Weil, requires “face validity” that allows teachers to improve their performance by rewarding them for effective practices and informing them of areas in which they need to improve.

For incentive-based pay to be effective, Weil explained, it must be part of comprehensive education reform. He pointed to teacher evaluation and professional development as necessary components of reform and equally bad problems in the United States.

For more on this event please see the events page.

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