Sunday, June 9, 2013

Reflections On Performance Pay For Michigan Teachers

Since the passing of House Bill 4625, it has been brought to my attention by Tom Gantert at the Mackinac Center that the Michigan Teacher of the Year earns a salary that ranks less than nearly 80% of the other teachers in the same district and that this is based primarily on years of experience or educational degrees earned. The Michigan Capitol Confidential article inspired in me some serious reflection on how teachers are compensated and whether a better model could loom in the midst of new legislation.

Though some teachers' work is in a different specialty area than science, my area of expertise, we are all working for students first and foremost. I am privileged to work with other award-winning, nationally and state recognized teachers in Grosse Pointe, all of whom have the best interest of students at heart, and many of whom have mentored me to become an exceptional teacher. There are many outstanding teachers in this state, and more needs to be done to keep them in the profession for the best interest of our students. In Grosse Pointe, I feel exceptionally supported as an educator and provided with some of the best opportunities to develop as a professional and hone my talents. Not all teachers are privileged to work in schools where they attract and grow top talent. Often, the lack of support and development for teachers is a strong turn-off to educators entering the profession. 

Teacher attrition is at an alarming fraction in our state, especially among newer teachers, and that is unacceptable; however, extrinsic motivators such as compensation are not the only way to keep great teachers in the field. It is not what goes into a teacher's wallet, but what comes from their heart, that guides their decisions about classroom practice. Excellent teaching is something that has to first come from the heart, and the heart must be supported in order to thrive. Supporting teachers in a variety of ways, including compensation, will contribute to reducing the attrition in the profession and keeping the top talent in front of our students. Blows to the hearts of teachers, such as negative public rhetoric directed toward Michigan teachers will propagate a seemingly hostile professional environment that discourages the best and brightest from entering and remaining in the field.

My heart, like the hearts of many educators, drives me to implement innovative teaching methodologies and best practice approaches to working with a wide range of student learning needs. These learning needs go well beyond that of content knowledge facts, which can be searched easily online in the digital era. What I provide for my students each day is a learning experience that goes beyond mere information about science to the application of science knowledge to career world situations, such as engineering projects, digital collaboration, and design thinking. What has earned me state-level recognition is more than having high test scores, it is providing a stellar learning experience that develops students into career-ready young adults who can communicate, collaborate, create, and critically think. My own professional practice has been heavily influenced by what I learn from other educators, mentors, advanced training, and conferences, but importantly it has also taken time and experience for me to hone my talents. Additionally, working in the medical research field prior to entering the teaching profession introduced me to some of the career skills that need be infused into classrooms, but are not explicitly part of our state's curriculum. I have had the support to integrate career skills into my classroom so I can strive to make a robust learning experience for my students where they learn by doing.

While I understand that the current model on which salaries are determined for teachers in public schools has relied heavily on experience and completion of higher education, this model does not accurately reflect, without more information on actual classroom practice included, the complete picture of effective teaching practice. Effective teaching practice resembles effectiveness in other professions, such as medicine, art, music, and journalism. We know that a journalist with more experience covering complex issues will likely have a more sophisticated voice when they write in a story, but that does not mean that a less experienced journalist cannot emulate the same practices as their experienced counterpart to achieve high quality writing in their work. Standards and best practice guidelines exist for many professions, including medicine, news media, and education. The best practices in education need to be modeled by veteran teachers for new teachers and required of all in the profession.

Although I recognize that, with experience, all professionals can improve in their field, I do not believe that seniority or advanced degrees are the only factors that should be considered in determining a teacher's effectiveness and compensation. Performance pay could have a place in education if it is not conflated with incentive pay or used as an 'if-then' extrinsic motivator. Incentive pay goes against the conclusions of behavioral science when it comes to cognitive work like that of teaching, medicine, or journalism, (Pink, 2011). Furthermore, a Springer, et. al. (2011) study of incentive pay for teachers found teacher incentives had little effect on student achievement. Performance-based compensation is not the same as incentive pay nor commission, and this distinction should be made very clear to all Michiganders, because compensation-driven decisions are not what is best for Michigan's students.

Despite some common misconceptions that districts are clinging to traditional seniority-based models for compensation, consideration of incorporating teacher performance is happening in schools across Michigan. Michiganders know that major paradigm shifts happen gradually, and the shift in education to focus on performance is taking place. As you know, recent legislative changes precluding seniority from being a significant factor in staffing decisions for teaching positions has influenced classrooms to be staffed for the best interest of students. This is an important milestone and is evidence that the conversation embracing performance over seniority has begun. As long as local school districts are given the control to make decisions about the performance evaluation model that best serves their students ability to grow and achieve, then you should see this conversation continue around the state. The recent passing of House Bill No. 4625 is going to continue moving the conversation along as well.

With regard to House Bill No. 4625, the language of the bill outlines a change in the framework for compensation models, specifically that they should "[include] job performance and job accomplishments as a PRIMARY factor" and performance should be, "at least in part based upon data on student growth as measured by assessments." The current language of the schools code is nearly identical, except that the performance and job accomplishments are (currently) "a SIGNIFICANT factor." This subtle, yet monumental, change according to the language of the bill, as is written, still does not seem to endorse any particular assessment, but rather "objective criteria," as the yard stick of student growth. The bill also would make it so that years of service and certain advanced degrees (non-subject area specific degrees) could not be included in the determination of compensation. 

The bill also emphasizes using a fair system. Key to making performance pay serve the best interest of students across our state, a compensation model will need to be fair. To maintain the integrity of the term "fair" (line 8) of House Bill No. 4625, it will be critical that two things occur:
  1. Educators are part of the conversation of developing models at the local level to implement performance compensation
  2. The performance compensation models should not have to be identical for all districts, because students achieve growth in a variety of ways that match their learning needs
With further regard to advancing the conversation surrounding performance pay, it should also be noted that:
  • Michigan School Code Sec. 1250, which is locally determined, already included performance pay language similar to House Bill No. 4625. This was part of the "Race to the Top" legislation passed in December 2009, signed by Gov. Granholm in January 2010. 
  • The tenure reforms signed into law by Gov. Snyder in July 2011 make performance pay a prohibited subject of collective bargaining by teacher unions.

Ultimately, effective teaching should be evaluated and compensated using a multifaceted approach determined at the local level with educators at the decision-making table. Though professional experience and level of education can contribute to the effectiveness of classroom teaching, these should only be part of the whole teacher compensation picture; instead, a comprehensive model that includes implementation of best teaching practices, professional accomplishments, continuing professional development, teacher leadership, contributions to the student learning experience, and student growth on assessments should be developed to utilize in schools.


  1. Well said. And I hope you keep saying it--especially the piece about local determination of how to attract and retain the best teachers and inspire them to creative solutions.

    As a former Michigan Teacher of the Year, I'd also like to:

    #1) Congratulate you and urge you to use your one-year bully pulpit to best advantage, no matter what pushback you get. Being MI-TOY is a great opportunity to lead--so be a leader and role model for other teachers with new ideas, rather than a mouthpiece for conventional thinking.

    #2) Share a piece written 8 years ago on topic of pay for performance (really hate "merit pay") that reflects many of the ideas you explicated here. I was co-author, with other teachers from around the country. Unfortunately, the conversation has gone in a different, test-based direction, but you might get some further ideas and evidence from this report:

    Hope we get a chance to meet someday.

    Nancy Flanagan, MI-TOY 1993

  2. Thank you Mr. Abud for calling out the folly of performance pay.

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