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Is Performance Pay in Your Future?

Every decade or so, some wicked smart research group says they have the secret for converting student performance into an evaluation system and merit pay for teachers. One of the ongoing attempts at pedagogical alchemy uses student progress in the Value-Added Model (VAM) to determine teacher effectiveness and compensation.

The debate over merit pay is relevant because newly-elected Governor Paul LePage supports “performance pay” and many politicians and pundits are promoting it.

Worrisome is a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools that found broad support for a revised approach to paying teachers, citing that “Almost three of four Americans believe quality of work and not a standard scale should determine teacher pay, with parents feeling equally strong about this issue.”

Since performance pay is popular with conservatives, VAM is sure to make an appearance in Maine. The only problem with VAM is that it works about as well as those claims for turning lead into gold.

A study by Dr. Henry Braun of Boston College and the Educational Testing Service (ETS) strongly recommends that “VAM results not be used as the sole or principal basis for making consequential decisions about teachers concerning salaries, promotions and sanctions.”

As in other studies the ETS report concludes there are no simple solutions linking student tests to teacher pay because, “There are too many pitfalls in making “effective teacher” determinations using the kind of data typically available from school districts.”

The Value Added Model, developed by William Sanders, tracks individual students’ academic growth as ascertained by test scores over several years and different subjects in order to estimate the contributions that teachers make to that growth.

Although this is a seemingly plausible construct, Braun finds that it is not an accurate indicator of a teacher’s contribution because it is “equivalent to making a causal interpretation of a statistical estimate.”

“Such interpretations are most credible when students are randomly sorted into classes, and when teachers are randomly assigned to those classes,” observes Braun. And, in the real world, students and teachers are not randomly selected; resources are distributed unequally; school policies vary; and, parent support and student effort are uneven.

All told, as with other attempts at merit pay, Braun’s research finds that the statistical machinery cannot untangle the intrinsic school and student differences from the underlying differences in teacher effectiveness.

Dr. Sean Corcoran, an assistant professor of educational economics at New York University concurs: “There’s not a lot of evidence, especially in the United States, that performance-based pay systems actually work, and there’s not a lot of agreement on what ‘work’ means.” 

Corcoran also challenges the claim that “everyone outside the profession uses performance-based pay.” In fact, the economist said, such “formulaic” pay plans cover only 5 to 6 percent of the workforce, concentrated in finance, real estate, and insurance.

Curry College education professor Donald B. Gratz, an expert in accountability and assessment, summarizes the history of worker motivation/incentive plans this way: “The only way to get at complex human endeavor is with complex evaluation.”

In his 2009 book, The Peril and Promise of Performance Pay, Gatz concluded that “Performance pay won’t work when it’s simply test-based, both because it’s conceptually flawed and because it simply can’t be implemented in any meaningful way.”

“It is difficult to find proponents or practitioners of any strict form of performance pay in business—where pay is tied specifically to results—except in areas like sales or other forms of piecework,” Gatz concludes.


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