The Pay-for-Performance Myth

The Truth About Collecting Unverified Data, 
in the name of proving one's worth as a teacher

Growth: the idea that if we analyze students' standardized test scores from one year to the next and see an increase, then we have won the battle in getting kids to retain knowledge. 

 

I remember when the concept was introduced around 10 years ago in our faculty meeting.  At first, it was simply an unofficial way for us teachers to analyze where our students needed more help.  Within a few years, it became a crucial element in judging our merits as educators, affecting both our employment status and our salaries.  In other words, measuring growth in students became an official part of teacher evaluation.   But that concept opened a huge can of worms.  How can growth in student learning be measured equitably?  More on that later.

But first, consider this:  

Why does a child demonstrating growth in a cherry-picked skill, such as identifying the main idea of a passage, positively affect a teacher's career?  

    This is a question that can only be adequately addressed if one understands the tremendous backlash against the supposed poor standing of American schools against the rest of the industrialized world.  I say "supposed" because when comparing our standing with the rest of the world, we are not comparing apples to apples.  Where America reports all the scores of its public school students, regardless of demographic or intellect, many other countries report scores selectively.  China is one of those countries.

   This backlash led to a national movement to hold teachers accountable, in a serious way, for their job performance.  But how do we do that?   Using standardized tests as a measurement tool of teacher effectiveness might seem the obvious choice, but not every teacher gives those tests and not every student takes them.  Think art, music, PE, and kindergarten, for example.  (And not every student takes those tests seriously, either.  The teachers' unions had a bit to say on this matter.)

    In came a system for measuring teacher effectiveness that was supposed to be doable by every teacher, regardless of their grade level or subject matter: monitor the growth of one's students on selected skills within any given school year.  

       Here's the plan, simplified for your convenience:

  • Teachers set a skill-oriented goal for students and give a baseline assessment to create a starting point for measuring growth.  Obviously, the worse the baseline scores, the better the circumstances for growth to occur.    Not only that, but the teacher creates the performance scale that awards her the points for her evaluation.  The only obstacle is getting one's principal to approve the goals and performance scale.  If one is in favor with one's principal, this is no real obstacle.  If one is out of favor, one goes through the vetting process for weeks on end.

  • At the end of the year, the teacher gives a final assessment and reports the percentage increase in skill level among her students to her supervisor.

  • The teacher is rewarded for her increase in achievement on her final evaluation.  

 

                Here's the kicker:  no one but the teacher verifies the growth in her students.

 

     Yet this data, combined with the principal's subjective review on her teaching, forms the bulk of her performance-based evaluation at the end of the school year.  How is this practice not ripe for fraud?  Not once in my four years of officially reporting scores did I ever hear a colleague lament that her students had not achieved at least 80% growth over the baseline given at the beginning of the year.  (80% was the standard we were told to strive for, for something called Universal Level of Achievement.)  And not once were any of us asked to provide the tests that back up the scores we reported.  I know;  I routinely asked this question of my colleagues at the end of each school year.

 

    In my final year of teaching in that district, I ran an experiment.  Where I had earlier done my best to implement the goals and assessments in an honorable and honest way, that year, I never gave any assessments for my goals.  I fabricated the baseline and final scores just to see if I could.  And yes, I could.  The principal took me at my word that the results I reported, which were modest enough not to set off any alarm bells, were authentic.  The amount of time I saved just entering scores that I thought looked feasible allowed me more time to plan for my students and more time in the classroom to actually instruct them.  I have to wonder how many teachers across my former school district have discovered this, as well, and are merely going through the motions to satisfy a pointless requirement.  Talk about the elephant in the living room!

 

    Pay-for-performance, a concept that began its life as a way to award bonus pay to teachers who achieved above and beyond has become a meaningless protocol of bureaucracy ripe for exploitation and fraud.  At its best, it is a requirement  that means nothing dramatic to anyone's career.  At its worst, it is a way to either catapult oneself to stardom, fraudulently, or sabotage the career of someone you wanted to get rid of.  Either way, its implementation is a massive waste of human resources and education tax dollars.
 

Want to read more?  The Education Story elucidates what I like to call  The Class Size Myth
T.L. Zempel, teacher and author
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copyright 2020 by TL Zempel