Answering Tough Questions About Pay for Performance

Panelists participating in the briefing at the National Press Club pose before a follow-up presentation on Capitol Hill. From left to right: Andrea Thomas-Reynolds, Jonathan Eckert (moderator), Claudia Perez, Michael Savage, Roseanne Lopez, Dennis Dotterer, and Amy Holcombe.

Panelists participating in the briefing at the National Press Club pose before a follow-up presentation on Capitol Hill. From left to right: Andrea Thomas-Reynolds, Jonathan Eckert (moderator), Claudia Perez, Michael Savage, Roseanne Lopez, Dennis Dotterer, and Amy Holcombe.

Representatives from six school districts that received Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grants from the U.S. Department of Education held a panel discussion Monday, Nov. 15 at the National Press Club to share their experiences and insights from implementing pay-for-performance evaluations systems for teachers.

As a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, I attended the event partly because it was moderated by Dr. Jonathan Eckert, a former Teaching Fellow, but also because I am interested in efforts to recognize and reward great teaching.  Eckert recently published a report entitled A Performance-Based Compensation: Design and Implementation at Six Teacher Incentive Fund Sites, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Joyce Foundation.   On November 9, he co-wrote with former Teaching Fellow Jason Raymond an article for EdWeek, “Friends to Teachers at the U.S. Department of Education?”

The panelists represented the six sites outlined in the report and presented promising preliminary data showing increased student achievement, wide stakeholder support, improvements in recruitment and retention, and positive changes in school culture.

As often happens during these events, some of the more interesting information rose out of the question-and-answer session, where audience members had a chance to bring up sticking points. The panel addressed two great questions that NEA representative David Schein raised.

Dr. Jonathan Eckert is a professor in the education department at Wheaton College where he is helping to prepare the next generation of great teachers.

Dr. Jonathan Eckert is a professor in the education department at Wheaton College where he is helping to prepare the next generation of great teachers.

How do school districts deal with problems of using data to evaluate and pay teachers, including issues of transparency, bias, and missing information? Panelists addressed this issue a number of ways.  Amy Holcombe (Guilford County, N.C.) described her district’s program, which includes a data quality plan to ensure transparency and the use of good data.  She said that before the numbers are run for an individual class, the classroom teacher gets a chance to scrutinize and scrub the data, to weed out scores that may not be valid if, for example, a student has been at the school for only two weeks.  Holcombe advised that giving teachers the right to challenge the data on their students builds educators’ trust.  They also feel trust, she added, because they know that the scores are examined in terms of both growth and achievement level.

Dennis Dotterer, director of TAP [the System for Teacher and Student Advancement developed by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching] for South Carolina, reported that his state relies on multiple points of data, not just one set of test scores, to evaluate a teacher’s knowledge, responsibilities, and contributions to student growth.  This approach is consistent with President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform, which calls for multiple measures and an emphasis on student growth.  According to Mr. Dotterer, because no single high-stakes test determines how well teachers are doing in South Carolina, they have more control over their evaluations.  He also emphasized that his state goes to “great lengths to be sure that everyone understands the model” for evaluation.

Other participants stressed how a shift in thinking and culture has helped teachers to feel more comfortable with the use of data.  Claudia Perez, a master and mentor teacher at Pan American Charter in Philadelphia, described how the challenge of accelerating student growth helps teachers to work together and become less competitive.

Mike Savage, principal of Audelia Creek Elementary in Dallas, concurred and described how the culture of his school has changed under its pay-for-performance system.  “Teachers don’t focus on compensation” much anymore, he said.   Mr. Savage went on to explain that the “payouts at first were widely disparate.”   Now that the staff have gotten used to the system, and they enjoy its success, Mr. Savage reports that the payouts are more consistent and teachers focus on helping each other get better so that the whole school succeeds as a team.  Savage is the head of one of 27 TIF-funded schools in Dallas, and his school has gone from a rating of almost “academically unacceptable” to “exemplary” in just a few years.

How do districts receiving TIF grants deal with the fact that the current TIF grants will expire? To face this challenge, panelists reported that they are realigning their funding sources to funnel money toward what actually works.  “We can’t be all things to all people.  We have to work more strategically,” said Dr. Andrea Thomas-Reynolds (Algiers, La.).   In South Carolina, Mr. Dotterer said that this means talking with legislators and the state school board about channeling money into paying teachers for outstanding performance.  Roseanne Lopez (Tuscon, Ariz.) agreed but added, “We also know that we need a good base salary, a strategy to pay teachers more equitably with other professions.”

Laurie Calvert is Washington Teacher Ambassador Fellow on loan from teaching high school English in Candler, NC