Saturday, February 23, 2008

Incentive pay for teachers

Cross-posted at the other home.

One of the big movements in teaching is “incentive pay.” Now, the rules of rewards are simple: be clear on what is needed to get the reward, be sure everybody agrees that the rules are fair, and be sure the reward is aligned to desired behavior.

The Houston Independent School District has a new “incentive pay” system called “ASPIRE.” This system fails on all three counts. The system is somewhat unclear, nobody can agree that the rules are great, and it does not create what (in my opinion) desired behavior should be.

What does one need to do to get money (up to about $8,000) under ASPIRE? The answer, in short form, is (a) get your students to have high test scores and (b) be at a school that makes overall improvement in test scores. However, the way in which the “value added” to each student is calculated is unknown. HISD students take two tests: the Stanford 10 (for all grade levels), which is a waste of a week of instructional time, and the TAKS, which is the state exam (starting in third grade). Somehow, these scores are put into a formula that derives the “value added” for all students—i.e., evaluating a student based on how the student performs year-to-year, and not comparing grade cohorts to the previous cohort.

Now, “value added” is great as a concept, but there are two significant problems. One is that if students score extremely high, it’s hard to have “value added,” since it’s tough to beat expectations. How is that accounted for in the formula? I have no idea, since I haven’t seen it, and neither has my principal. This was a major problem for my school. We typically score very high, in particular because GT students (gifted-talented) have a magnet program at my school. Our percentage passing went from 93% two years ago to 92% last year (these are very high percentages for HISD). Therefore, we ended up in “Quadrant 4,” which in HISD lingo means that we get $150 per teacher in school bonuses—since we didn’t create more “value added.”

The second problem with “value added” is that there are sometimes changes from year-to-year that aren’t accounted for. The specific change I am referring to is the language of instruction. My students are in their first year of taking their tests in English—last year, they took all assessments in Spanish. Therefore, last year their teacher taught them almost all in Spanish, and this year I have to get them speaking English and passing writing, reading and math tests at a fourth-grade level. Obviously, their scores go down in fourth grade compared to third, because their English is not at a fourth-grade level. This is not accounted for by the ASPIRE system, which expects them to improve at the same rate regardless. Therefore, my behavior is negatively impacted. I got no individual bonus because my students didn’t improve their scores over last year’s—for obvious reasons.

So, there are unclear rules, and the rules are unfair as regards the bilingual program and how exactly “value added” is calculated. But do the rules motivate the right behavior, regardless? That depends on what you think the right behavior should be. Generally, what is desired is (a) more campus cooperation and, as a result, (b) higher test scores. The amount of disagreement about the rules and even the concept of ASPIRE means that (a) is grievously undermined. It doesn’t affect the behavior of the teachers at all and it creates a lot of anger when the bonuses are actually distributed. Our campus felt disregarded when we didn’t get a lot of school money, even when schools which are much worse than ours got far more money just for bringing up very low scores. Really, this means that (b) is not impacted. Is (b)—raising test scores—a worthy goal? Well, that’s a long discussion for another time.

What this shows, I think, is that a system which many people think of as “worthy” (the pay is being funded, I am told, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) is really the subject of much disagreement and bitterness. “Incentive pay” as a concept for teachers remains a good idea, in theory. But, of course, there have been many other good theories that fail upon execution.

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