Should the salaries of teachers be based on their students’ performance? Should doctors’ salaries be based on how well their patients adhere to treatment plans? In an interview with USA Today, teacher Debra Gunter illustrated the factors which affect student testing that are beyond her control, “Your mother and father just got a divorce, your grandfather died, your boyfriend broke up with you; those kinds of life-altering events have an effect on how you do in class that day through no fault of the teacher whatsoever.” Is Gunter just deflecting responsibility or can basing a teacher’s salary on test scores really improve student outcomes?
The Arguments in Favor
All of the degrees, certifications and professional development classes in the world mean little if your students are not learning. A common mantra in teacher training programs is, “If students do not learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn.” Under this logic, basing a teacher’s salary on student performance could encourage teachers to experiment with new strategies. A 2012 study at the University of Chicago suggests that basing the salaries of teachers on test scores can work, though not the way that most people would expect. The study found that teachers who received bonuses at the beginning of the year under the condition that the money must be returned if their students’ test scores did not improve saw a 10 percent average gain, whereas teachers who were promised bonuses after test scores improved saw no gain.
The Arguments Against
Whether or not student testing is a valid measure of student achievement is already a controversial topic. Teachers with a high proportion of students with learning disabilities or students who are still learning English would be unfairly affected by student performance based pay. Teachers who only teach honors and AP classes would have an unfair advantage as students are usually enrolled in those classes because they tested well the previous year. Of course, pay inequity could damage the already fragile morale in many schools.
What are the alternatives?
As part of Race to the Top, most states have begun requiring administrators to observe teachers throughout the year and rate their performance based on rubrics like this one. Such rubrics grade teachers based on their actions instead of their students’ performances; however, much still needs to be done to address the poor performance of many American students.