Why performance pay is the wrong path forward for North Carolina’s schools


“I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.”
                –Award-winning Harvard economist Roland Fryer


A few years ago, Roland Fryer set out to learn whether the New York City Department of Education’s distribution of $75 million to teachers who met performance targets in 200 high-need schools actually led to better outcomes for students.  His research determined that it didn’t.  Not only that, the department’s practice of dangling money in front of teachers may have even decreased achievement, by encouraging teaching to the test and damaging the collaboration so necessary for healthy school culture.

Here in North Carolina, performance pay has been creeping into education reforms as well.  

Our principal pay system was recently overhauled after North Carolina’s ranking had slipped to an embarrassing 50th in the nation, with lawmakers vowing to “give more pay to principals who could move their schools to a higher performing level.”  The new system pays school leaders based on how much their students grew on standardized tests at the end of the year.  It was enthusiastically supported by pro-business education reform organization Best NC, whose board includes influential millionaire GOP donor Art Pope.

The principal pay plan was so deeply flawed from its inception that it requires annual renewal of a hold harmless clause to prevent reductions in salary of up to $20,000 for some principals.  Research clearly shows that having an effective principal in place is especially crucial in schools that serve our most disadvantaged students. Unfortunately, performance pay discourages principals from working in struggling schools where high staff turnover and other factors make consistent growth difficult to achieve.

Another move toward pay for performance was conceived by Senator Phil Berger and included in our 2016 budget.  Berger’s teacher bonus program initially offered sizable bonuses–potentially more than $9000–to third grade reading teachers who were in the top 25% for reading growth on standardized test scores.  Despite the financial incentive, those scores continue to drop, as they have ever since Berger’s Read to Achieve program was rolled out in 2013.  

That trend didn’t stop legislators from expanding the program to include reading for grades 3-5 and math in grades 4-8 in addition to high school AP, IB, and CTE courses.  This year a total of almost $39 million will be spent on the annually recurring teacher bonuses.

Paying educators based on their results probably sounds very reasonable to a corporate CEO, but a model that works for investment bankers simply doesn’t translate to the education setting.  The idea that performance pay will improve learning outcomes is based on the premise that teachers aren’t working hard enough. And if you have a mental image of teachers sitting around the lounge with their feet up while their students toil over mimeographed worksheets, you clearly haven’t been in our schools.  Public school teachers are among the hardest working people you could ever hope to meet.

Bestselling author Daniel Pink notes how odd it is that we apply merit pay to teachers but not to other public servants.  Why don’t we pay police officer based on how well they lower crime in the areas they patrol?  Would we ever link soldiers’ compensation to border security? Pay public health workers using data on disease and death rates?  Or do we recognize that there are far too many factors beyond their control for that approach to make sense?

In addition to its failure to improve student learning, there is another really important problem with performance pay.  It gives our policymakers cover for not seriously addressing the lagging base pay which forces many teachers to work a second or third job just for the privilege of educating our children.  Lawmakers can point to the millions of dollars spent to reward ‘good teachers’ and avoid actually raising salary to a livable wage. Meanwhile, NC teacher pay is mired in 37th place nationally, educator salaries are down 9.4% since 2009 when figures are adjusted for inflation, and we continue to lose teachers to neighboring states or to the private sector.

Rather than wasting taxpayer money on flawed compensation systems and bonuses that don’t help our students, let’s stop trying to apply logic that belongs in the corporate boardroom.  Let’s work to make our state a place where the best and the brightest will want to come and teach. Let’s focus on treating all of North Carolina’s educators like the hardworking professionals they are.   

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