Linking Teacher Pay to Student Performance

A retired teacher's perspective on recent trends

American students are falling behind students in the rest of the world. It must be because their teachers aren’t teaching them, therefore we need to pay teachers based on their students’ performances on standardized tests. This will motivate teachers to do a better job and improve the education of their students. Then our students will be better prepared to compete globally.


Teaching is a demanding and sometimes overwhelming job. (c) Bonnie Schupp
What we need are policy makers who excel in lateral thinking.  Things will never change as long as our policy makers continue to think inside the box and dictate overly simplistic solutions. They are running our nation’s schools like a business. Education is not a business that can be measured with quality control like items on an assembly line. (* See footnote) We are looking at children, complex human beings, who are part of a huge multi-layered problem. Until all the layers are examined and addressed, education problems will not be solved.

Connecting teacher pay to student performance will not work because the solutions offered are shallow and a large part of the problem lies outside the teacher’s influence. From all my years of teaching, I’ve never known teachers to be focused on pay as much as on doing the right thing and the best job for their students.  If we begin to focus on test scores with rewards for teachers, we open up a can of worms. We will begin to acquire teachers who have priorities which may not be best for their students.  As we have already seen, a number of our nation’s school systems have encountered problems with cheating as teachers panic and try to influence test results.

Yes, there are variances in the quality of teachers, as in any profession, but the current trend of pay for student performance is troubling. What if dentists were paid based on the number of new cavities their patients had with each dental visit? Can they control how much sugar their patients eat or how well they brush their teeth? Certainly dentists educate their patients about dental hygiene but they have no control over how their patients use this knowledge.

The Problem

Although good teachers certainly try to influence students in all ways that will help them succeed, they  have no direct control over some elements that influence how students perform on tests:

1.    Attendance. Some students attend school regularly but others miss school for illness, family vacations, suspensions and other reasons, legitimate or not. Much of what is taught during a school year is sequential with new skills often based on previously taught skills.  Teachers offer time after school for students who have missed classroom time but often students do not show up.

2.    Lack of prior student skills needed for success in a particular grade. Education policy as I experienced it allowed students to continue to the next grade, even when they had failed a subject. So then students are passed to the next grade without the tools for success.

3.    Home environment. Those students who come from functioning, supportive families have an advantage over those who do not. I’ve seen in my past teaching experience families fighting over child custody, parents who do not encourage and oversee homework completion, parents who don’t understand the commitment needed to the education process and parents who have little control over their 12-year-old middle school child.

I am a product of the Baltimore City school system and always did well but much of that can be attributed to my parents. They monitored my homework, bought whatever supplies I needed, went to every PTA meeting and taught me to respect my teachers. They made it clear to me that if I misbehaved and got detention or if they received a negative phone call from a teacher, I would be punished at home too.

In my teaching experience, I gave up on detention to help with behavior problems because ultimately detention added to my problems and time which I didn’t have enough of. Parents told me their children could not serve detention for any number of reasons. It was not unusual to hear a parent say, “I told Ryan that he doesn’t have to serve detention because he says he doesn’t deserve it.”

4.    Student attitudes and accountability. Students of any age can be apathetic for any number of reasons. Good teachers are often able to get beyond this and motivate these students but it is not always possible. Many middle school students are more concerned with who is “going out” with whom than they are about test scores. It is a time in their lives where they are dealing with huge physical and emotional changes. Because of this, school can take a back seat and their reasoning is often illogical.  Sometimes their logic is right on though;  I’ve heard students speak aloud about how they don’t care about how they do on standardized tests.  After all, they will still pass regardless of their scores. (They are concerned about staying in the same grade as their friends.) They know about cause and effect. With the current teacher-pay-score system, there are also some devious students who hold grudges against particular teachers who will undoubtedly intentionally do poorly on tests with the hope of hurting those teachers they dislike.  If you think this is unlikely, then you’ve never taught school, particularly middle school.

5.    Class size. I always tried to be the kind of teacher I would want my own children to have. That was my yardstick. I went beyond what I needed to do in the classroom and spent my own money and time putting together a website (called Reaching Minds) that parents and students could go to to see what was accomplished each day in class. I included links to all work papers that were distributed in class so that even when a student missed class, the work was there. Just about all families had home computers and those who had a technology problem could always come into my classroom and print out assignments on my classroom computers.  Parents and students had access to my e-mail and my home phone number was listed in the phone directory.

I tried to deal with class size in these ways so students could independently help themselves. But there are logistics of class size that continued to frustrate me. We had 50-minute class periods. Most classes had 30 students or close to it. I could teach to the entire class but when it came to time for individual students needing help, the math says that I had less than two minutes to give to each child in my room. So many students needed much more.

The solution

So what is the solution?  These are the layers that must be attacked all at once:

Add 33 students to these 33 crowded desks.
1.    First class size. Give teachers the tools they need to work with. To me, class size was always more important than textbooks and, yes, even pay. Students cannot learn if teachers don’t have enough time to teach them.

2.    Next educate not only the child, but the family. Many parents need help. They came from dysfunctional families and have no role model, no idea of how to raise a child who can succeed. They need help as parents so they can understand how important it is to be good role models for their own children and to be guides who set limits and encourage positive actions. Parent education works best when started early. I saw way too often parents of middle schoolers who had lost all control of their children by the time they were 12. Kids cannot learn if they and their families are out of control.

Minutes to eat lunch and no recess.
3.    Look at the whole child and not just the child who sits in the classroom.  The breakfast and lunch programs already in place are an example of this. Guidance counselors are important. They cannot deal with issues that need attention (bullying, abuse, drugs and alcohol) because their case loads are too large. Hire more guidance counselors who do not have to deal with standardized tests but who will have time to deal with those issues important to children. And give children enough time to eat their lunch and release some energy. In my middle school, students had 25 minutes to go to their locker, go to the bathroom, go to the lunchroom, stand in the lunch line, eat lunch, and then clean up. And during this time, there was always an adult blaring directions over the microphone in a cafeteria din unconducive to relaxation, conversation and digestion. The way some students are forced to eat lunch is inhuman. Wherever did recess go? Kids cannot learn if they are hungry or fearful and their human needs are not met.

4.    Examine neighborhoods and what the school and greater community can do to create more stable neighborhoods with positive offerings.  Some people think that middle school children are old enough to take care of themselves but it is often that this age group needs more after school supervision than younger ones. Provide free after school programs where parents can send their children. Lack of supervision affects students' ability to learn.

5.    Give teachers time to help and learn from their peers through classroom observations and collaboration. They have so much to learn from one another. In fact, just give teachers time to do their jobs well. Harried teachers affect the quality of education.

6.    Empower teachers. In my district, the school board consists of business professionals and one student representative. No teachers. These business people set policy for educational professionals who know best what their students need and how to teach them. Something is wrong with this picture.
Of course this will take money but how important is education? All teachers might not agree with me, but I would have taken a pay cut if my working conditions, such as class size, had been improved. I agree that teacher tenure should be dropped. It won’t matter to good teachers because they continue to do a good job regardless. Those few poor teachers should be replaced. I do not agree with teacher pay related to student test scores because it will fail.

We need to forget about the business of education and worry more about the humanization of education by looking at the whole child. Any lateral thinkers out there?

Bonnie Schupp taught middle school and junior high school English/Language Arts in Maryland before retiring in 2003 to complete graduate studies at the University of Baltimore. She graduated in 2005 with a Doctor of Communications Design.  Baltimore City 1967 - 1975;  Annapolis 1988 - 1990, Pasadena 1991 - 2003

More on this topic:

Daniel Pink's February 2012 blog says it well: 

Also important:

Study finds that teacher incentive pay does not increase student achievement. 
New York City’s heralded $75 million experiment in teacher incentive pay — deemed “transcendent” when it was announced in 2007 — did not increase student achievement at all, a new study by the Harvard economist Roland Fryer concludes.

“If anything,” Fryer writes of schools that participated in the program, “student achievement declined.” Fryer and his team used state math and English test scores as the main indicator of academic achievement. Elizabeth Green

Giving Teachers Bonuses for Student Achievement Undermines Student Learning

ScienceDaily (Apr. 6, 2011) — Recent efforts to improve teacher performance by linking pay to student achievement have failed because such programs often rely on metrics that were never intended to help determine teacher pay, contends Derek Neal, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. 

Schools cannot be run like a business:

A Businessman Learns a Lesson
by Jamie Robert Vollmer

"If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn't be in business very long!" I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute..  My  speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes  of in-service. Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a knife.

I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the middle 1980s when People Magazine  chose our blueberry as the "Best Ice Cream in America."  I was convinced of two things.

First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic  selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the industrial age and out of step  with the needs of our emerging "knowledge society."

Second, educators were a  major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly.

They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! TQM! Continuous improvement! In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced equal parts ignorance and arrogance.

As soon as I finished, a woman's hand shot up. She appeared polite, pleasant - she was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran, high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload.  She began quietly, "We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes  good ice cream." 

I smugly replied, "Best ice cream in America, Ma'am." 

"How nice," she said. "Is it rich and smooth?"
"Sixteen percent butterfat," I crowed.
"Premium  ingredients?" she inquired.
"Super-premium! Nothing but triple A." I was  on a roll.
I never saw the next line coming.  "Mr. Vollmer," she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, "when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?"

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap. I was dead meat, but I wasn't going to lie. "I send them back."
"That's right!" she barked, "and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused,  frightened confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them all: GT, ADHD, ADD, SLD, EI, MMR, OHI, TBI, DD, Autistic,  junior rheumatoid arthritis, English as their second language, etc. We take them all!  Everyone!
And  that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it's not a business. It's a school!"

In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, "Yeah!  Blueberries!  Blueberries!" 

And so began my long transformation.

Since then, I have visited hundreds of schools. I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best  CEO screaming into the night.

None of this negates the need for change. We must change what, when and how we teach to give all children maximum opportunity to thrive in a post-industrial society
but  educators cannot do this alone; these changes can occur only with the understanding, trust, permission and active support of the surrounding  community. For the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America.