Teacher Pay Based on Students Test Scores

Teacher compensation has remained relatively unchanged in structure and motivational effect for the past half century (Hoar 326). The current system for determining a public school teacher’s salary is the single salary schedule. It consists of two considerations: the amount of educational units or degrees a teacher has amassed and the numbers of years of teaching experience, with time at one’s current school usually weighted more heavily than overall teaching experience (Aaronson, Barrow and Sander 98). There is a growing argument that the basis of teacher’s salaries or bonuses should be students’ test scores. The main point of this essay is to argue against the argument that students’ test scores should determine a teacher’s salary or bonuses.

Self-styled reformers have claimed that the solution for the slow pace school reform is to pay teachers according to the performance of students. Such a solution arises from the assumption that “education is not different from the other policy areas in what shapes behaviours” (Sultanik 35). As a result, paying teachers based on their classroom performance will lead to positive outcomes for students. However, research has proved otherwise.

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A working paper released by Roland G. Fryer, a Harvard University economist, contradicts the proposition that merit pay for teachers will result in positive outcomes of students. In a random research trial of approximately 200 New York City schools, Fryer established no evidence that giving incentives to teachers increased the performance of students, their attendance or graduation (17). The author notes, “There is no evidence that teacher incentives had a positive effect on achievement. Estimates of the effect of teacher incentives on high school achievement are all small and statistically no significant…” (18). In fact, Fryer found that teacher incentives could decrease student achievement, particularly in large schools (19). These findings echo the teacher’s long-standing position that merit pay strategies would do little to alter outcomes. A look at the history of merit pay explains why the position of teachers is right.

Merit pay for teachers started in the United Kingdom, in approximately 1710, when “the basis of teacher’s salaries was students’ scores in reading, writing and mathematics” (Odden 362). According to Odden, the motive of the strategy was “to keep students from poor backgrounds in school in order to learn the basics” (362). This plan found its way into the Revised Education Code (1862) and remained for more than thirty years. However, the problem was that the plan diminished creativity out of classrooms because of the obsession of teachers with the code. It was apparent that the merit pay for teachers demeaned education and, as a result, legislators dropped it in 1890s. The strategy reemerged in Canada in 1876. Again, it led into similar problems and ended in 1883.

According to Lavy, merit pay for teachers came to the United States of America in 1869 (1980). Arkansas public schools took up performance contracting under pressure to close the gap between black and white learners. The district gave the federal government a proposal it could not refuse. It said that it would return money for students that failed to pass tests of a stipulated level (Lavy 1982). The outcome was too promising to be true. For instance, students “averaged scores of two grade levels in mathematics and grammar after 48 hours of instruction…” (Lavy 1980). However, investigations found out widespread cheating. In spite of this realization, eighteen other states in Arkansas adopted performance contracting. After some time, the authorities stopped the program because there was no evidence of improvement (Hoar 327).

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Still undeterred by the historical events, reformers came up with a pilot program called the Texas Education Excellence grant in the 2005-06 school calendar years. A year later, the legislature expanded the program to include the whole state. The legislators earmarked $100 million for teacher bonuses tied mainly to test scores at 200 schools (Odden 362). An evaluation by the centre on performance incentives at the Vanderbilt University established “the effect of teacher incentives on student performance was inconclusive” (Odden 362). The legislators closed the program in May 2009.

The above historical analysis of merit pay for teachers guides the concept back to the report by Fryer. According to Fryer, there exist four likely explanations for the dismal results of the test score based payment for teachers (22). First, the teacher incentives are simply not powerful enough. For instance, teachers in the American schools who achieved the target received approximately $3,000, which was less than four percent of the average yearly teacher salary. The second reason is that the merit pay plan is too complex for teachers. Teachers are not sure of the amount of effort needed for them to achieve the targets. Besides, they are not sure of how to test the students. The third reason is that group based rewards are ineffective, which is especially significant in the American experience where majority of schools voted for group based distribution of the money rather than individual based. The fourth reason is that students may come to class with large deficits and little or no parent involvement; this makes teachers to experiment various approaches of helping the student. Such approaches need time, a fact not considered by the performance based teacher program.

In addition, according to Sultanik, basing a teacher’s salary or bonuses on students test score may not take into consideration the individual differences of learners (35), especially when there is no screening and assessment for students’ capabilities and deficiencies. Equating a student’s success or failure to a teacher’s success or failure has the ability of overriding the learner as the central focus of an education process. According to Sultanik, the education process should be child centered and not teacher centered (35). As a result, we should view success or failure from the perspective of what the student can or cannot achieve. It should then guide the teacher on the best approach to foster the learning of the student. We should determine success in the teaching and learning process from the individual achievement of the students, according to the perception of the teacher (Sultanik 35), which is especially relevant where learners with disabilities may be present. For instance, we may judge a teacher as underperforming based on the student’s score test. In the real sense, the student may be having learning disabilities or experiencing mental challenges. On the other hand, we may reward a teacher for the exemplary performance of the learner while, in the actual sense, the learner is gifted and talented. Thus, it means that if we should adopt test score based teacher salaries and bonuses, then we should ensure that there is screening and assessment of all learners to identify their capabilities and disabilities.

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The problem with the advocates of merit-based payment for teachers is the failure to acknowledge that the teaching profession is different from corporate careers. Banks may correctly define achievement using predetermined figures in profits or losses. On the contrary, setting such predetermined parameters in the education process is challenging, as success may be dependent on other factors not controlled by the teacher. However, it is not likely that the evidence gathered over the years will stop future attempts at teacher incentive plans. Some people will continue to push for teacher salaries or bonuses based on students’ test score. However, the representatives of the education field should stand firm and point out the disadvantages of adopting such strategies.

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