A primer on performance pay

Don’t call it merit pay. If you’re ever at a social gathering with a bunch of policy wonks, you can show you’re really in the know by offhandedly referring to “P4P,” a cute acronym I learned today at a conference about “pay for performance.”

New approaches to teacher compensation, which have come in and out of style, are definitely on their way back in. In fact, they are on the table right now in Oakland, as labor leaders and district administrators try to find common ground on a possible new parcel tax initiative for teachers.

Roberta Mayor, Oakland’s interim superintendent, and Laura Moran, the district’s chief operating officer, came to today’s conference to gain insight into the controversial compensation strategy that Obama has recently endorsed. Betty Olson-Jones, the Oakland teachers union president, and a couple of other local union leaders (who were skeptical, at best, of some of these proposals), also came.

“We need a breakthrough,” Moran told me after the first session.

The 8-hour event was put on by academics from Policy Analysis for California Education (a research center at UC Berkeley and Stanford), and by the Full Circle Fund, a San Francisco-based philanthropic organization.

We learned all about Denver’s program, named ProComp, which was largely funded by a $25 million tax levy and amounted to a 12 percent increase in money available to pay teachers. ProComp rewards teachers for a variety of things, including professional development, meeting individual teacher goals (set and agreed upon by each teacher and the principal) and student test score improvements (if more than half of the class outperforms the median test score jump at the state level).

In another panel, San Francisco’s union leaders and superintendent talked about the compromises they made to pass Prop. A, which gave teachers large raises — and included provisions such as extra pay for teachers at high-need schools.

Olson-Jones said she liked what she heard in a session she attended about the pay incentives in Minneapolis, Minn., an approach heavy on professional development and mentoring (I didn’t attend that session, but found a New York Times piece that touched on it).

Given the dozens of teachers in the audience, most speakers were careful to frame performance pay as a collaborative — if “messy” — effort to support teachers and improve schools. Dan Katzir, managing director of The Broad Foundation, wasn’t quite as sensitive.

“Other countries select teachers from the top quartile of college graduates,” Katzir said. “Not us.” While touting the potential merits of test-based performance pay, he then added that such compensation measures might attract “a different breed” of teachers.

Here’s the catch: No one knows if it really works.

Daniel Humphrey, associate director of the Center for Education Policy, SRI International, said very few rigorous studies have been conducted on merit pay, and that they have been inconclusive. While that doesn’t mean that it isn’t effective, he said, “We just don’t know enough to say definitely that, yeah, you’re going to get a student learning gain.”

I could go on and on, but I’ll leave it there. Would you support a new way of compensating teachers — paying them extra for working in tough schools, for example, or for teaching subjects that are hard to staff? For big test score gains at a school or classroom level?

What questions come to mind?

image from iwannt’s photostream at flickr.com/creativecommons

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nextset

    Despite concerns about gaming the system at the expense of the kids I support pushing some authority to the principals and letting them try different things. As long as you replace them if/when you believe someone else can do better with the school.

    Principals need more authority and tenure should be cancelled. One of the advantages of the Charters is the ability to replace teachers or start with new teachers to the liking of the principal.

    Is there a danger of cherry picking the students, of course. It goes with the educational territory.

  • CBITS teacher

    Cherry picking students goes with the educational territory? Does such a comment really do justice to a critical element of this issue, which is that some schools can accept and dismiss students at will, yet others–like flatland schools here in Oakland–must take every student who comes knocking, be it their first week in America or their 5th school in one month due to behavioral issues? I am clearly not making a judgment about either one, but my point is that such schools are quite different.

    Also, let us please be careful about how much trust we want to place in the hands of just one person, the principal. Our current system creates almost a dictatorship system for the principal…without any type of checks and balances system for the other stakeholders like the teachers and parents, two demographics that are often times more the expert on the school’s community than the principal.

    If we believe that the community owns the school, not one adult we call a principal, then I would argue that communities need more control, not the principal. There should be democratic systems established to make community decisions such as, for example, keeping or releasing a teacher. To ensure integrity of all decisions in schools, there should always be several people in the room at the table…not just one.

    Otherwise, how would we know that principal decisions are being made for the right reasons?

  • Debora

    There have been some excellent examples of how to fairly reward excellent teachers on the yahoo group publicschoolparents – and while some of it is tied to test scores, there is also an idea for all students to be able to achieve every year, an overall improvement in the learning environment at the school and preparing the students socially for the next steps – going from elementary to middle school, or accepting leadership roles with younger students.

  • Pepe

    Nextset, giving principals more authority and cancelling tenure will do nothing to help with the recruitment and retaining of talented teachers, which seems to be the only sustainable way forward.

    The focus does need to be on getting more of those “top” college graduates interested in teaching and then rewarding those teachers for success. We could make tenure something that isn’t so automatic, but I also have a problem with putting so much power in one person’s hands–there is a history of having school administrators who are not great leaders and make decisions that are not in the best interests of the students.

    CBITS Teacher, while I also believe it is imperative to involve the community for input and decision making, a democratic system still needs a leader who can be trusted as the education “expert” with a better view of the big picture. Of course that is not always the case since principals aren’t always chosen from the “top graduates” either. But I don’t know if the answer is to hand direct control of a school to parents and teachers. While I am an active participant, I would not feel comfortable making osme of those decisions for my own daughters’ schools.

    If there is any hope for success, it is obvious that drastic changes need to be made, and while I’m not sure how “cherry picking” got into the conversation, it is obviously not a solution for the education system.

  • TheTruthHurts

    I’m with Obama — I’ll go for what works. Don’t know if it works? Try it. It’s not as if the current system is working so well.

    What galls me is the defenders of the status quo of mediocre teachers and mediocre results. Sure, there are great teachers in OUSD. There are simply not enough of them, supported well, motivated and placed where we need them.

    Can we please just get off all of our high horses and just DO SOMETHING! Begging for more money with no strings — we sound like GM or bank execs. It’s just not going to happen people. Why would a taxpayer just throw more money down this chute? We’ve got to be willing to try something new. I don’t know if it’s P4P, but we’ve got to stop tinkering around the edges and do something meaningful. I’d love to see teachers making $100K as long as our children are prepared to make $100K as well.

    Right now, these kids are suffering mightily under the current system and it’s even sadder that many won’t know how much they’ve suffered until they leave (notice, I didn’t say graduate).

  • harlemmoon

    Whatever happened to OUSD’s vaunted EXPECT SUCCESS! program. Wasn’t it supposed to be the omnipotent cure for what has ailed the district?

  • Nextset

    Pepe: You are right about what I proposed having an affect on hiring. If I were actually on the job making these decisions I may not so what I speak of here – talk is cheap and it’s harder when you actually have your finger on the trigger.

    As far as hiring and retention, there is a depression coming and this is not the time to worry so much about that. And what makes you think I’d want classically trained, education majors as teachers? I don’t. I’d prefer military and industry personnel as secondary school teachers. And I’d prefer teachers with majors other than education both for administrative staff and classroom teachers.

    And for Urban Secondary Schools I don’t need top of the class candidates. I need a quality other than that in candidates to engage these kids and take them farther and faster than they, their families and their society expects them to go. Top grades, brain processing power and Ivy League schools have their uses. For this I think we need something more which is a quality of people skill, ambition projected to the students, leadership, eagerness to prove something. Sometimes someone, like Joe Kennedy, can’t be President (wrong religion, ethnicity, society) but they can through years of chess moves place one of their sons on the throne. I’d like teachers who want the world for their students and know how to get them ready for it.

    Which doesn’t include coddling them.

  • Ms. J.

    Maybe the ‘different breed’ of teachers to whom Katzir refers are those who are motivated by money. While most excellent (as well as not-so-excellent) teachers I know wouldn’t mind being paid more, not ONE of the excellent teachers I know went into the profession because of the remuneration. Teachers who ‘want the world for their students’ want the world for their students, not themselves.
    I agree with Nextset in so far as something other than Ivy League credentials (or being from the top quartile of their classes) is necessary to be a good teacher. I also think that most people are not good teachers when they start. That’s why the mentoring and professional development are so important.

  • harlemmoon

    Why don’t we simply look to other more successful school districts to see how they recruit and retain solid teachers. Why re-invent the wheel when great models abound before us?
    And, please, before some of you pipe up, don’t respond with how special the needs are in Oakland, or how things in Oakland are so very different than everywhere else or any other of the same stale arguments that impede progress.

  • TheTruthHurts

    I had some good teachers and a few great teachers. The great teachers were passionate about their craft – teaching, and passionate about the subject matter – e.g., English. They transferred both the knowledge and the passion to their students. I have no idea whether they had an Ivy education, but they probably didn’t.

    That said, I know plenty of others with the aptitude for teaching and a love of their subject matter who would NEVER think of signing up for the horror show that is public education today. Yes, low wages are part of it, but there’s also the lack of respect, poor working conditions, the parents who don’t hold up their end and the system that rewards the mediocre as much as the excellent (or moreso in some cases).

    As much as teachers are suspicious of “merit” pay, I know several who left the profession, in part due to the bad apples at the top of the food chain who are supported in their mediocrity because “they’ve paid their dues.”

    That makes me think of something. Are any of our most respected professions unionized? It seems to me this protecting of the mediocre supports the disrepect of the larger group. Why in the world would we keep a mediocre teacher to teach my kids over a great one based on tenure? As a parent, that’s just crazy. It’s hard to support a system that does that.

    We wouldn’t be talking “merit” pay in the first place unless we knew some don’t “merit” extra money. If we thought extra money would improve performance across the board, why not go that route? I remember people aspiring to be teachers and nurses. Not so much anymore. I think a few bad apples may have effectively poisoned the bunch.

    Looking at GM and why they are looking like a dinosaur, I’m wondering if our public school system is facing a similar fate for similar reasons – begging for taxpayer bailouts because no one wants to buy what they’re selling.

  • Kim

    Short of imploding the entire system of public education something drastic has to occur. I’m with you the Truthhurts. Public education has become a dinosaur with a lot of dinosaur thinking and action occurring. Remember the definition of insanity? keep on doing the same……. (you get the picture, I hope) at least the President does.

    No longer can the system afford to be an employment agency, that protect contracts and people instead of the very thing that public education is suppose to protect, which is the public’s interest. We must educate children so we don’t slide into a barbaric society as we are rapidly becoming.

    I’m all for rewarding success. They do it in other industries, why not in education.

    A second grade teacher sees 100 students in five year under the 20:1 ratio. Does any one ever check that teacher performance and or rate of return? In other words, how many students did they prepare for the third grade in that five year period?

    Look at third grade test results nationwide to get your answer.

    Imagine a doctor failing over seventy percent of its patients. Hum!!!! Will he still be practicing? I hope not.

  • Debora

    We have some excellent teachers in OUSD. Cindie Jue-Leong at Joaquin Miller comes to mind.

    Here are the things she does differently from other teachers. She uses “readers” issued in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. At the beginning of the year she tests every student to find their reading level and assigns a reader that includes stories, poems, biographies, art descriptions and science experiments. The students have a log. They move up to the next level reader as they finish the one they have.

    She teaches social studies by using bread from around the world, each student participates and must bring in bread from a country. They must be able to color the map of the country, find it on a flat map and a globe and they must tell something about the country. The children cut the bread into shapes and discuss 1/2, 1/3. 1/4, etc. World and US puzzles are done – children are able to identify continents, bodies of water and N, S, E, W.

    In math they use wooden cubes, regroup, add and subtract – by the end of first grade they are doing so with three digit numbers – well beyond the OUSD and California standards.

    They learn to write in Chinese using a brush and how to use chop sticks. They learn traditional folk tales from no fewer than 30 countries.

    For homework, it’s finding 5 different seeds and five different leaves – arranging them by size and matching seeds to leaves. Halloween is a good excuse for sorting candy and prizes a minimum of three ways and she has been known to have the students find 40 items and write the item and the country the people manufactured the item.

    There are 3 paragraph essays before the end of January and five paragraph essays before the end of the year. Book reports are common place. Parent participation is required.

    By the end of the school year children have mastered first grade and the majority of the material needed for second grade. They have worked hard and learned a great deal – and the majority of the kids loved working that hard. And the kids take home a CD of pictures put to music of their school year.

    Cindie makes the same salary as every other teacher for what she does. Fair, no. Equitable, no.

    I just don’t understand why teachers who are stuggling to meet the needs of their students are not given the opportunity to see how a true “Master Teacher” teaches.

  • J.R.

    That is impressive!I would hope that the students and their parents are as “into” learning as this teacher is “into” teaching. A great educational experience requires three things

    1.An engaged,passionate,highly qualified teacher.

    2.A receptive,diligent student.

    3.At least one concerned parent who believes in supporting the teacher and their child.

    Unfortunately I have see these things in varying permutations and to different degrees.Most teachers are good and professional(some aren’t), and yet its this slacker group who define the public perception of education(thats a sad fact).

  • Craig Gordon

    Merit pay, “P4P,” or however one dresses it up will not solve the profound inequality in our educational system that is embedded in our unequal economic and social system. Any serious effort to even partially redress those inequalities through education has to start with what we KNOW works, not by “trying anything, because the status quo isn’t working.” That’s simply irresponsible when we do know through experience and much careful study that lower class size (around 15, just like in those successful private schools) and more time for preparation yield consistently better results.

    Now if one assume that the “money isn’t there” for these things or that it’s “just not gonna happen,” then we have to ignore what we know works and go for mindless experimentation, such as new pay formulas to lure miracle workers into public schools to replace the “incompetents” who somehow haven’t been able to do everything with nothing.

    I work a neighborhood where where some have suggested that “combat pay” would help. Much as I’d like to be paid more — and all teachers should be paid more — the additional money isn’t going to make me a better teacher or bring in people who can make all students successful under abominable conditions. That’s wishful thinking at best. But lowering class size, providing equitable access to information technology, making facilities as comfortable, safe, and healthy as in suburban schools — that will make a significant difference. But that also will take a lot more money than the various incentive pay gimmicks.

    One prerequisite for convincing the public to dismiss this argument for better conditions and to settle instead for fake “solutions” (e.g., NCLB, charters, merit pay) is to insist that money for changing these absurd conditions just “isn’t there.” Yes, we’re in a severe recession. Let’s see, what was happening to the economy during the 1930s when workers fought for and won Social Security, unemployment insurance and other “costly” programs? Are we to believe that the money for lower class size and decent working and learning conditions can’t be found when trillions are found for AIG, Citibank, etc.?

    Proponents of the fake reform like to dismiss this argument as unrealistic. But what is really unrealistic is the notion that in communities where students enter school already behind in literacy and numeracy, that all will actually accelerate and catch up under subpar conditions rather than fall further behind, if only the right teachers can be recruited and retained… But it’s a an idea that fits much more easily into the myth of individual merit and succss. Our corporate-dominated culture makes it more difficult to take seriously the idea of people collectively fighting for and winning progressive social change. But that’s what real change requires. And history shows that the victories won by those who have envisioned and worked for such change have proven them to be much more “realistic” than previously thought.

  • cranky teacher

    Blame the unions all you want, but that just shows ignorance.

    The teacher unions got the best they could in a system of scarcity: Since they couldn’t win true middle-class wages, they demanded tenure and the districts gave it to them.

    You think police and firemen don’t have similar job security at three times the pay?

    Teachers that last in Oakland are survivors, just like the kids. Some are good teachers, too, even brilliant at it; but that is not the primary requirement — putting up with chaos and lousy pay is.

    If you want to change the dynamic, you do have to spend some money. Not the 100K that is bandied here, but:

    1. Raise per capita spending to that of N.Y. state.
    2. Offer the union a one-time and permanent 50% hike in salaries in exchange for the dissolution of tenure. This would bring teacher salaries close to in line with what other public servants make, although still far less than cops and firemen can make with overtime.

    Now, if my union turns something like that down, we can complain. But nothing like that has ever been offered, as far as I know.

    Currently in Oakland the district is asking for cut in wages.

  • cranky teacher

    “per capita” should read: “per student”

  • Pepe

    I guess that’s what I meant by “top” graduates: not ivy leaguers, but the most promising teachers. Our country has it backwards–teachers should be held in the highest esteem, and along with that, they should be paid to reflect this. Our education system won’t be fixed until our children start dreaming of becoming teachers when they grow up.

    Teachers need to be better trained for what awaits them in the classroom and then supported in the same way a doctor is not allowed to practice on his/her own before a lengthy period of supervised decision-making. Just as mediocrity is not allowed in the medical profession for obvious reasons, it should not be accepted in the teaching profession. Luckily, my kids have me to support them when their teacher is ineffective, but too many children don’t have that same advantage.

    We need to stop blaming parents, since there is no way to “improve” them. Students with proper guidance and encouragement will rise to the challenge as long as their school lives are filled with caring adults who are passionate about educating them, maintain high standards for them, and believe in them. It is truly amazing what children are capable of accomplishing in spite of everything (school often included) stacked against them.

    I’ve read about too many good or great teachers that leave the profession because they are just working too hard and they are not able to afford or make time for their own families. We need to figure out how to make it so this is not the case. Maybe this is one small step in the right direction.

  • Pepe


    Reducing class size will be disastrous if large numbers of quality teachers aren’t found to staff those additional classes.

  • Pepe

    Cranky Teacher,

    Your idea seems really intriguing. Do you think a majority of teachers share your sentiment? Have any school districts done something similar?

  • Alice

    First of all, thanks to the Broad Foundation exec for that slap at teachers about merit pay possibly attracting a “different breed” of teachers.

    In terms of merit pay, here is my main question: Are the best teachers the ones with the best test scores? At my daughters’ elementary school a few years back, parents were very unhappy with one particularly teacher. She was accused of being disorganized, unimaginative, and the most damning of all to upper middle class parents, “boring.” But her class did score higher on the standardized tests than the children in her more popular colleague’s class across the hall.

    Teaching is an incredibly complex job, requiring a wide ranging skill set. Two teachers can have radically different styles, temperaments, philosophies — and still be excellent teachers, in ways that might never show up on a standardized test. Until we come up with a supervisory system that can take all of this into account, I have doubts about how well merit pay can work. And I worry that we will encourage a rote and unimaginative style of teaching that will teach children how to pass tests, and not how to think creatively or critically.

    In my family’s 10 years in the Oakland public schools, the excellent and good teachers we have encountered have far outnumbered the dreadful ones.

    And every year I ask myself why these good teachers stick around. They don’t make very much money, have had to engage in brutal contract negotiations with the district, are told to use scripted curriculums, see their benefits chipped away — and have the extra added pleasure of being defamed as being incompetent and racist on blogs like this one (see the comments after Katy’s entry about the principals being fired). And now we’re suggesting they should go for all of this, and get rid of tenure too? Gee, why aren’t the top grads just flocking to these jobs!

  • Nextset

    Pepe’s comment about not being able to improve the Parents struck a chord. I have had elderly relatives – many of them dead now – tell me about being a black teacher in public schools when they were segregated, then going through integration and being assigned to white students. Not once did any of these relatives say anything about the Parents black or white other than the parents did not cause much trouble for them (that they remembered/wanted to speak of). All the conflict, joys and events were between the teacher and the students. That’s what they talked about.

    I don’t want to hear any complaining about loser parents as the reason the kids fail. If the kid doesn’t have the brainpower to do advanced schoolwork, flunk them, transfer them, and get them into a program that fits their brainpower. End of problem.

    This is a thread about pay and performance and I harp on the past too much.. Sorry people, in a depression we don’t need to be giving any teachers raises and we can pick and choose who we want with all these unemployed people from industry. We can freeze and roll back pay and benefits (in real dollars) and still get the right teachers.

    And that’s the way it’s going to be.

  • TheTruthHurts

    Mr. Gordon, you may make a good deal of sense. Has anyone done the math to see what it would take to both bring wages up and provide 15:1? Sounds like a tall order, but at least voters deserve to have the option. It’s our money and our kids. I like the idea of 50% higher wages and no tenure. Let the bad apples find other work less devastating to our collective future. Maybe the unions can get that 15:1 by giving on tenure. I’m sure 15:1 won’t do much if the teacher is crappy. Likewise, the great teacher described above could probably do it with 30. If we’ve got proof something works, let’s get it before the voters.

  • J.R.

    After the multiple layers of Dept. of Education bureaucracy are excised there will be plenty of money for these proposals.Much of the cost of education is not spent directly in the classroom where it should be allocated.We have too many superintendents(and assistants)at every level of government.This is unnecessary and wasteful.

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  • J.R.

    All these issues have a direct affect on that……. You won’t(cannot) do it if you cannot afford it……. There is no magic formula or gimmick to good education(it’s effort and hard work).

    1.Good, highly qualified teachers.
    2.Attentive students ready and willing to learn.
    3.Involved parents ready to insist on #1 and #2.
    4.Sufficiently high standards(not all states insist on high standards).

    There you have it! from all the successful districts in this country to you.

  • Catherine

    What if you are an involved parent who vounteers at your child’s school. You have a child who is ready, willing and able to learn and in fact learns more during summer school and camps in 8 weeks than during the school year. What do you do to create teachers who teach?

  • J.R.

    You need to give principals the authority to axe the deficient teachers,teachers who are burnt out and don’t care anymore and teachers who have are habitual no shows.Principals, parents and students are very well aware who the good teachers are, so just develop a metric for identifying good teachers and fire away.

  • cranky teacher

    Pepe, the superintendent in D.C. is trying to do something like a cash-for-tenure swap, although I don’t know the details.

    J.R., principals HAVE the authority to get rid of teachers, but as in other union and/or goverment jobs, the institution has to do its due diligence: Identify and document problems, offer remediation and training, monitor for improvement and then terminate the contract

    All of that takes organization over time which is lacking in troubled schools/districts where everything is run by “crisis management” and hampered by endemic high turnover.

  • David


    “The Democrats demanding these concessions are creating conflicts between the unions to an unheard of degree. If a complete break happens between the unions and Democrats — as it should — the repercussions would be enormous. The New York Times explains: “If unions are the Democratic Party’s base, then teachers’ unions are the base of the base. The two national teachers’ unions — the American Federation of Teachers and the larger National Education Association — together have more than 4.6 million members. That is roughly a quarter of all the union members in the country. Teachers are the best field troops in local elections…. In the last 30 years, the teachers’ unions have contributed nearly $57.4 million to federal campaigns… and they have typically contributed many times more to state and local candidates. About 95 percent of it has gone to Democrats.” Teachers’ unions cannot continue to support a political party that aims to destroy them.”

  • J.R.

    There seems to be some logical disconnect on your part, while yes principals(technically)do have the authority to give unsatisfactory ratings to teachers, they in fact must build a case(which is a long and laborious process)in order to recommend the dismissal of a teacher(this process takes years documenting everything)so in real terms you have a better chance of winning the lottery than firing a tenured teacher. I think New York was only able to fire a few teachers last year for substandard performance( and no one in their right mind believes that there are only a handful of bad teachers in a whole state, thats just ignorance of the highest magnitude. The unions set the ground rules and that is the real problem, but the tide is turning and parents are PO’ed that we are not keeping teachers based on performance and competence. Not everyone can or should teach, and we must make sure that only those individuals that are capable stand in front of a class regardless of length of service.

  • harold

    J.R. – unions DO NOT “set the ground rules”. What they do is bargain with management. And clearly, management has more “power”, when they can just impose a contract on its employees (like the current situation in the OUSD).

    There are more than a few terrible administrators in the OUSD. I know a few. Go ask around. I bet you the majority of them were not the best Teachers, before they moved into management.