Connecting Test Scores to Teacher Pay – Do It Right, Or Not At All

Editor’s Note: Recently, 69 percent of Californians said the state should tie student achievement to teachers’ pay. One teacher says giving bonuses, not punishment, would be fair.

A recent Public Policy Institute of California survey on education shows 69 percent of Californians believe student achievement should be closely tied with teachers’ salaries. The finding shows a greater public concern about teacher quality, likely brought on by recent attacks on teachers unions. This avenue of discourse often blames teachers more than it praises, and it disregards the tough job teachers face in real classrooms.

I am a teacher in a low-income urban high school. Although I agree student achievement should be partially tied to teachers’ salaries, it needs to be one of many measures we use to reward good classroom instruction.

Despite efforts by various foundations and organizations, there still isn’t a proven way to effectively evaluate teachers. I wouldn’t mind making some extra money when my students’ scores rise–why wouldn’t I? But we have to remember our assessments of both students and teachers are far from perfect.

I give my students many tests. The unfortunate thing about our state and district-wide assessments is they are all multiple choice. In addition, there are often errors in the tests, or the test data is inconclusive.

Some of the tests are culturally biased as well. These tests are so flawed it is sometimes impossible to judge anything from the data gathered. I just did an assessment of data over a whole year for one of my classes, and it didn’t show me much. The most one could discern is that students got a little bit better at taking a certain kind of test.

Part of the problem for me and other English teachers is how we assess language-arts skills in a multiple-choice test. The actual writing part is either very small or nonexistent. So even though I guided my students in writing seven persuasive essays, each through three drafts, with the series turned in as a portfolio, the students weren’t asked to write anything on the statewide test.
To me, testing students on their knowledge of English without requiring any writing is unacceptable. And it is unacceptable for anyone to tell me I am not doing my job, if they haven’t seen my students’ writing.

Also, the sheer variety of classes we teach make what we do very difficult to assess with the current tests.

For example, in my English department we have three levels of English Language Learner classes; three levels of sheltered classes for limited-English-proficiency students; regular English; plus accelerated, honors and advanced placement. Add to those special programs, such as the Puente program for educational enhancement and Advancement Via Individual Determination. I’m not aware of any distinctions between these types of classes being made in data assessment.

Then there are the differences in rigor on grade-level exams. Looking at the California Standards Test data of these classes, many things become apparent. Ninth graders seem to make the most gains out of any grade level. It’s not clear whether the ninth-grade Standardized Testing and Reporting test is easier, or if, developmentally, students make a huge leap between junior high and high school. But it seems as if ninth-grade teachers would be compensated the most simply because they teach ninth grade.

In addition to the problems we face in the classroom, studies have shown that putting the carrot of better pay in front of teachers doesn’t necessarily make them teach any better.

Good teachers can’t do much better than they’re already doing. They’re already arriving early, staying late, grading papers all weekend, running after-school tutoring programs. If you told a teacher like this they’d make more if they did more, they’d rightly ask how you expect them to do more?

Even so, I am in favor of giving high achieving teachers more money. Even if they aren’t suddenly going to start working harder, they can still receive a bonus for doing a great job.

This is why we should tie student achievement to bonus pay, not teacher salaries. This is an important distinction, and there are already some programs out there trying this approach.

For example, the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) has begun a trial in California’s Lucia Mar School District. Although the program does tie teacher pay to student performance, it is the only such project that does so in the form of bonuses. Our educational system should not be penalizing a teacher’s already meager salary.

I have no problem being evaluated and held accountable for the job I’m doing. My door is always open, and I welcome discussions that will hold our profession accountable for teaching the next generation. With the negative perceptions we face, opening the realities of what we do every day for all to see could be a wonderful idea.

But if we want to tie student achievement to teacher pay, let’s make sure it isn’t the only criterion we use. My ninth graders just put on Romeo and Juliet in its entirety. They memorized lines of Shakespeare and delivered stunning soliloquies. I have yet to come across a standardized test that would assess something like this.

So even though it is most likely not being done right, should we still offer bonuses to teachers whose students are most prepared to ace multiple-choice tests?  If it means more money for teachers, I have to say yes–and hope we get better at assessing teachers and students in the meantime.

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