Teacher quality under the microscope

It’s no secret that one of the keys to creating better schools is to raise the quality of teaching in the nation’s classrooms. But how to identify, and encourage, high-quality teaching is proving to be a challenge.

Several efforts to address this question are under way. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has just launched a five-year, $500 million initiative to quantify what, exactly, makes a teacher effective and how to tie that to student achievement (see story). And the Obama administration has cited improving teacher quality as one of four education-reform areas it plans to target in particular. (See “Duncan outlines school reform agenda.”)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said he supports merit pay for teachers–a practice linking raises or bonuses to student achievement. He also said test scores alone should not decide a teacher’s salary, “…but to somehow suggest we should not link student achievement to teacher effectiveness is like suggesting we judge sports teams without looking at the box score.”

Duncan also is using federal stimulus dollars to press the issue.

Later this year, states will compete for a piece of $5 billion in “Race to the Top” stimulus funding, which rewards those states and school systems that adopt innovations the Obama administration supports. Whether officials tie student data to teacher evaluations will be a consideration in awarding the grants, said Duncan.

Although relatively rare, the use of pay-for-performance programs appears to be growing, albeit slowly. According to analyses of data from the “Schools and Staffing Survey” administered by the U.S. Department of Education, 13.6 percent of districts rewarded excellence in teaching in 1999-2000, and 14 percent rewarded excellence in teaching in 2003-04.

In 2003-04, 19.6 percent of districts said they rewarded some schools for excellence in teaching through a school-wide bonus or additional resources for a school-wide activity, and 15.4 percent of districts said they provide a cash bonus or additional resources to individual teachers to encourage effective teaching.

The key challenge in implementing pay-for-performance systems, experts agree, is how to define teacher excellence. The most obvious way would be to look at student achievement, as Duncan wants to do. But that’s controversial, as many people believe test scores alone paint an unfair or incomplete picture of a teacher’s contribution.

A recent survey, “Exploring the Possibility and Potential for Pay for Performance in America’s Public Schools,” conducted by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), revealed the motivations and concerns that influence superintendents’ consideration of pay-for-performance systems.

Out of 536 school administrators from 45 states, 45 percent expressed moderate to strong interest in pay-for-performance programs, and five percent of all respondents were already pursuing pay-for-performance programs for teachers in their districts.

The top three indicators school leaders would use in determining performance-based pay were student achievement (89 percent), teacher evaluations (68 percent), and teacher attendance (54 percent).

But defining student achievement should mean more than calculating test scores, many observers say.

“I don’t believe merit pay based solely on test scores is appropriate,” said Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Berryessa Union School District in San Jose, Calif. “The research I did [for] my doctorate … indicated that using test scores as a hammer doesn’t work. I don’t think giving teachers more pay to get higher test scores will get the desired result, except in cases where teachers teach to the test, not to the students–which totally misses the point of high-quality instruction.”

Education Sector, an education think tank, and public opinion research company FDR Group surveyed a national sample of teachers on their attitudes toward a variety of teacher policies, including compensation reforms. They found that fewer than half (42 percent) favored incentives for “teachers whose students routinely score higher than similar students on standardized tests.”

In analyzing these results, as well as other survey data, the nonprofit Center for American Progress (CAP) determined that teachers are more likely to support programs that rely on a variety of measures of teacher performance, rather than those that rely on only one measure (such as test scores).

Also against merit pay based solely on student achievement scores is the Economic Policy Institute, which recently released a report titled “Teachers, Performance Pay, and Accountability: What Education Should Learn from Other Sectors.”

The study, conducted by economics professors Scott J. Adams and John S. Heywood at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, claims there are “significant downsides of reward-punishment systems based on quantitative outcomes, whether in the public or private sector.”

“Contrary to the claims of advocates of teacher merit pay, relatively few private-sector workers have pay that varies in a direct formulaic way with their productivity–and the share of such workers is probably declining,” Haywood states.

He adds, “Formulaic reward structures often reward only a few dimensions of productivity and run the risk of causing workers to abandon effort in the dimensions not rewarded.”