The Pay-for-Performance Myth

The Truth About Collecting Unverified Data, all in the name of proving GROWTH

Growth: the educational concept that is sweeping the nation today.  Introduced around ten years ago, documenting growth has supplanted true achievement as the next best practice in evaluating the performance of teachers in the classroom.  It has spawned and fed the flawed practice known as Pay-for-Performance, originally proposed as a way to recognize exceptional teachers with bonus pay.

    The essence of growth is this:  Your students may not be proficient in reading, but if their scores 
edged closer to that mark by even a little bit, then they grew in their learning. Something to be 
celebrated, right?

    But is it really?  A 6th grader who entered your class reading at a 4th grade level and is now 
reading at a 5th grade level did show improvement in his skills during his time with you, but he’s 
still under grade level.  He still cannot function in a 7th grade classroom without assistance.  
But that’s not what matters under this system. What matters, to the teacher and the district as a 
whole, is that the child demonstrated growth, which benefits the district in the form of money and 
the teacher in the form of a positive performance evaluation.

    Wait a minute.  How does a child demonstrating growth in learning positively affect either a teacher's career or a district's financial situation?  Didn't we used to rely on verified test scores for measuring how well a child  is achieving?  And when did that achievement become less the child's responsibility and only the teacher's?

    These are questions that can only be 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 of the scores of its students, regardless of demographic or intellect, many other countries report scores selectively.  

   The backlash led to a national movement to hold teachers accountable, in a serious way, for their job performance.  But how do we do that?  The only feasible way seems to be to test the achievement of students, since their learning forms the product of what teachers do.  Yet how do we accomplish this?  Standardized tests 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.

    In came a system for measuring teacher effectiveness in what was supposed to be a fair and equitable manner: monitor the growth of students within any given school year.  

    But what system can we invent to make measuring growth an effective arbiter of teacher success?  I know!  Let's come up with the most cumbersome, flawed system we can think and make it heavily prone to fraud.  Then, we'll enact policies that make it possible to look like one is an effective teacher, on paper, without actually being an effective teacher.

    Here's the plan, simplified for your convenience:

  • Teachers set goals for students, collectively, and give a baseline assessment to create a starting line for measuring growth.  Obviously, the worse the baseline scores, the better the situation for "growth" to occur.    Not only that, but the teacher creates the performance scale that awards her the points for growth.  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 with a rating of Effective or Highly Effective on her final evaluation.

But here's the kicker:  no one, other than the teacher,

verifies the growth in her students.

 

     Yet this growth, combined with the principal's review on her performance, forms the bulk of her pay-for-performance evaluation at the end of the school year.  How is this system not ripe for fraud?  Not once in my four years of operating under this growth system 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.  And not once were any of us asked to provide the tests that back up the scores we reported.  In my final year of teaching, 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 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.  

 

    Pay-for-performance, a concept that began its life as a way to award bonus pay to teachers who achieved above and beyond became a meaningless protocol of bureaucracy ripe for exploitation and fraud.  At its best, it was measurement tool that meant nothing dramatic to one's career.  At its worst, it was a way to either catapult oneself to stardom, fraudulently, or sabotage the career of someone you wanted to get rid of.
 

T.L. Zempel, author and retired teacher
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copyright 2020 by TL Zempel