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Highly Qualified or Highly Effective

by Bo Boylan

January 9,2010

Under the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Peter Gorman, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) recently announced they would initiate a process of implementing a “pay for performance” (PFP) compensation system for teachers in the district. Announced alongside several key leadership initiatives included in the 2014 strategic plan for CMS, the PFP program has, thus far, generated little to no public interest, and in my view, surprisingly little interest from teachers. To be clear, this is a big deal. And it’s not just a big deal for teachers. A conservative estimate of salaries and wages for teachers in CMS approaches $500 million. While teachers will certainly feel the most significant force of this initiative, our entire community will be affected as well. It’s important for our community to join the conversation on what this initiative means for the future of our school system.

Variations of PFP (merit pay, pay at risk, incentive pay to name a few) are long standing institutions in the corporate world. As a career sales professional, I have always worked under compensation systems with some portion of my pay at risk. As a business owner, all of my pay is at risk for performance so the concept is certainly not new to me. History suggests that the concept of PFP for educators is not new either. Research suggests that school districts in the early 1900s using some variation of PFP approached 50%. By the 1950s the number plummeted to fewer than 5%. The pendulum began to swing back in the 1980s with 10% of districts employing PFP systems, moving to 12% in the 1990s. So why the swing? I think the answer lies not in pay, but in effectiveness.

Pay systems for teachers traditionally hinge on two primary factors: degrees earned and time served. Basically, teachers earn the right for increases in pay based on credentials rather than student achievement. I am certainly not suggesting, as some pundits do, that teachers care more about a master’s degree than their students. Nor am I suggesting that experience measured by time served isn’t important. The facts are, however, that neither advanced degrees earned nor time served alone correlate directly to student achievement. Do some teachers become more effective over time? Sure. Are some more effective as a result of applying new tools and techniques learned in advanced degree and certification programs? Certainly. But it’s not the norm, and certainly not the majority. The flaw in this thinking rests with paying people based on characteristics believed to be tied to results, rather than on results themselves. In other words, compensation is based on how qualified someone is as opposed to how effective they are in the classroom.

The real challenge lies in determining what “effective” means. This is where educators need to develop an informed, unified voice and must participate fully in not only defining what effectiveness means, but also how to implement systems that monitor and measure effectiveness. Suggesting that effectiveness is somehow situational and dependent on intangible factors that are difficult to measure simply won’t work. I just don’t buy the argument that you cannot tell the difference between a “good” teacher and a “bad” one. It may be a painful process and most certainly will require an immense amount of study and reflection. But it’s possible; not only possible, but necessary. If educators can’t determine what constitutes effective and ineffective teaching, we face a far greater challenge than pay systems. It suggests that as a profession, standards for measuring student achievement- the ultimate measure of teaching effectiveness- are unattainable. If we don’t know what effective teaching means, we should. And if we can’t define, monitor, and measure student achievement, than the profession has failed to deliver assurances that our educational system can in fact prepare our children for a productive, prosperous future.

I applaud the bold leadership our school system is taking to address the issue of teacher effectiveness, and related pay systems head on. And I appreciate the sentiment that the district wants to include teachers in the journey. This way, CMS leadership is doing pay for performance “with” teachers, not “to” them. Teacher effectiveness’ role in student achievement is a high stakes issue that affects us all. 

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