Performance pay for teachers is here: Some reflections

The Indiana General Assembly, to no one’s surprise, passed Senate Bill 1 Monday and sent it to the governor to sign into law. The legislation upends how teachers are compensated in Indiana, replacing a system based on experience and education with one based on measures of effectiveness.

The old system has been in place for decades. And while it served important purposes – reducing discrimination, providing job security, creating a career path in which a person could count on making a decent living in a relatively low-paying profession – it couldn’t hold up to the new political reality.

So now Indiana will have a system in which teachers undergo yearly evaluations, which must be “significantly informed” by student test scores and test-score improvement, and are placed in one of four categories: highly effective, effective, needs improvement and ineffective.

Give some credit to state lawmakers for amending the SB 1 to make clear that teachers won’t face salary cuts from the change; early versions of the bill weren’t clear about that. Also, the Department of Education seems to be doing the right thing by asking school corporations to try out new teacher assessment systems in 2011-12 before they’re implemented statewide in 2012-13.

Here are a few concerns:

– SB 1 says “objective measures of student achievement and growth” will “significantly inform” teacher evaluations, and ISTEP exams will be used to rate teachers whose effectiveness can be measured that way: i.e., classroom teachers in grades 3-6, middle-school English and math teachers, and high-school algebra and biology teachers. What about everyone else?

– The bill says teachers who are rated improvement necessary and ineffective won’t get raises, and the money they don’t get will boost performance raises for teachers rated effective and highly effective. Does this create a disincentive for teachers to collaborate?

– Does the linking of teacher pay and student performance mean teachers won’t want to teach classes with “difficult” students? Can a principal set a teacher up for failure by loading his or her class with challenging students?

– State officials say school corporations will be able to design their own teacher evaluation systems in a “bottom-up” process. But the bill prescribes a top-down process in which the State Board of Education sets criteria for teacher ratings, determines the tools for measuring student performance, and has to sign off on any local plan that deviates from a state-adopted model.

— Nowhere, it appears, does the bill say that teachers need to be involved in designing the systems under which they will be evaluated.

– The bill says the state will make public, for each school corporation, the number of teachers in each effectiveness category. Parents and the public are sure to use this information to compare schools. How will we know the evaluations are comparable across districts?

– The bill says information made public about the evaluations will not include any “personally identifiable information” about individual teachers. In fact, it will be easy to determine if a teacher was in a higher or lower ratings category. Simply compare salaries from one year to the next and see if the teacher got a raise. For schools in Monroe County, the local newspaper makes it easy.

– Who will conduct the evaluations, and where will they find the time and resources to do a fair and thorough job? The bill says evaluations will be conducted by principals, experienced teachers, or designated evaluators, including hired contractors – and they must be trained in evaluation. What resources will go into building and maintaining this capacity?

This shift to performance-based pay is taking place not just in Indiana but across the country. But as Matthew Di Carlo points out on Shanker Blog, even well designed, thoughtfully implemented teacher evaluations won’t produce more than incremental improvements in student learning. To make a difference, he says, we need to confront America’s shameful inequality in income, jobs, housing and health care.

“Saying we can’t do all this because of the political environment, or because it’s too expensive, or too slow, is as much of an ‘excuse’ and a ‘defense of the status quo’ as anything being said in education debates,” Di Carlo writes.

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2 thoughts on “Performance pay for teachers is here: Some reflections

  1. One comment on your concern about teaching a class full of “challenging” students — isn’t this based on the growth model, so it doesn’t matter where the child started relative to the other children in the class? All the teacher would have to do is produce gains for that child that match or exceed gains of other children who got the same ISTEP+ score all over the state.

    • Sara, the bill says “objective measures of student achievement and growth,” so it sounds like it would be based partly on the growth model – it’s up to the state board. But it seems to me that non-classroom factors would could have an effect on growth as well as on straight achievement. Suppose two students start at the same point on the test-score scale. One has a stable home life, supportive parents, etc.; the other has a chaotic home life, etc., and is in a class with many students in similar situations. All else being equal, would you expect one student to “grow” more than the other? I sort of hate to make this argument; my experience and bias is that kids are more alike than different. But I think most teachers would say that some classes, some groups of kids, are more difficult than others. I would hate for a compensation system to create disincentives for teachers to take on that challenge.

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