Why Duncan’s Push for Incentives is Poor Timing

I hope we are ready for performance pay, or incentive pay, for educators. It is very clear this administration supports and promotes providing incentives to teachers outside the typical salary schedule. Back in the days when a variation of performance pay was called merit pay, I was adamantly opposed primarily for two reasons: too much is based on a single test, and merit pay rewards people for withholding good teaching practices from their peers. The latter we can do something about, but the former…well…be willing to pull out your checkbook to solve that one.

I am intimately involved in a federal incentive grant with 10 school districts in our state, and these experiences have caused me to modify my thinking somewhat on the merits of incentives. Done correctly, I think incentives could play a positive role, but done incorrectly, they could have devastating impact. I am not opposed to our Secretary of Education pushing for incentives, but I believe we are heading down the road for negative results. Here are the prerequisites (in brief form, I will provide more detail in later writings) that Duncan and company need to take into account before incentives will work.

1) Testing must cover more grade levels and content areas. Testing reading and math for grades 3-8 and 1 high school grade level (NCLB) is completely inadequate. We need measures for most content areas and grade levels for incentives to work.

2) Testing must measure student progress and growth, not static status of students. While growth models are an improvement over the status models of NCLB, they are still based on the limited fact-oriented, once-a-year tests. Also, the growth models used in many states are based on linear regressions, which means we are grading on the curve. Half the students win, half lose. That is completely inappropriate for incentives to truly improve education (see number 6).

3) Testing must be formative in nature, not a once a year task. This is not only for the educators. As my colleague, Bob, has stated for years, the students must have a stake in their test progress. They can only be engaged if it provides consistent feedback over the course of the year.

4) Our assessments must measure more than content knowledge. It must measure student’s ability to reason and use technology tools solve problems–the basic 21st century skills (or ICT skills).

5) We need systems that recognize and measure good pedagogy. Most schools have teacher evaluation processes geared around negotiated agreements to ensure proper procedures are followed for potential removal of substandard teachers.That is hardly the right system for implementing incentives.

6) Incentives must be structured so teachers get incentives for working together to help all children’s progress. Professional learning communities are key to incentives becoming a positive work experience. Individual performance pay naturally provides an incentive to keep other educators from doing well. Incentives need to reward people helping the entire education system become stronger. Sadly, most schools do not have well-functioning PLC structures that can impact change.

Mr. Duncan, there is a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid before incentives can work–note most revolve around our lousy assessment system. That could be a great role for the federal level of education–providing a better structure for improved assessments. We have certainly seen what a poor system of assessment we have with 50 separate states doing their own. Without the right assessments and school structures in place first, we are setting up incentives to fail. That is certainly not what performance pay advocates want or need. Oddly enough, the federal incentives programs already have documentation on many of these problems or issues. So why are we moving down the road to incentive disaster? Who are we helping by pushing incentives into the national scene before structures are in place to support its success?

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One Comment

  1. Really well-said. Great job addressing some of the issues this would create.

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