Saturday, July 25, 2009

How Will Performance Pay Impact School Climate? It Depends on Leadership.

There is considerable discussion on performance pay for teachers given that it is a cornerstone of the Obama administration's education policy. Arne Duncan has spent considerable time discussing the issue to reporters and in public forums. The NEA has weighed in on its resistance to the notion. But the administration has remained steadfast: performance pay will be part of the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) regardless of the new name.

Teacher groups have shown tremendous resentment towards these plans. One has only to listen to the NPR interviews and read the news clipping to understand that teachers feel strongly that this is not a good thing. So the question is: how will this impact school climate? Will it adversely impact teacher morale? My guess is that it will impact teacher morale adversely – but maybe just in the near term.

I remember conducting focus groups with teachers six or more years ago. All I heard about (it seemed though I am sure they talked about other things too) was how the accountability components associated with No Child Left Behind were an unfair attempt to discredit public education. Introducing accountability was absurd. Accountability was an unwelcome hardship laid at the feet of teachers. The teachers believed (and perhaps many still do – right or wrong) deep in their hearts that accountability was unjust. They also believed that it would not last. Clearly, however, accountability is here to stay.

Interestingly, as the years progressed I heard a shift each year in my conversations regarding accountability. It started with administrators but trickled down to teachers. They seemed (albeit slowly in some cases) to accept the need to objectively measure student performance. Even more promising, educators were able to figure out how to think about accountability as more than just
teaching to the test
. Positive developments in the thinking about how schools were or were not successful began to emerge. Educators learned to study data in complete new ways. They had a new and healthy appreciation of the challenges that were theirs.

I credit much of the shift in sentiment regarding accountability to district and school administrators. The leaders who were successful recognized the need to measure student performance. But more importantly, they recognized the need to bring teachers along. To convince them that this was important. To challenge their assumptions without challenging their dedication. Effective leadership was key for many schools who undertook the significant cultural transformation towards being data driven. The same type of leadership will be necessary to lead this transformation.

Now let’s be fair and accurate. Many teachers still feel that they are teaching to the test. And perhaps they are. But many educators have embraced the need for measuring progress and have adapted well within the framework of No Child Left Behind. Most senior-level administrators I know firmly support accountability today despite that fact that far fewer supported the legislation when it was first introduced.

Will performance pay for teachers follow a similar pattern? Will teachers and administrators, after several years of protesting, realize that the best in the profession might actually be able to make more than the worst in the profession? Clearly the devil is in the details. Issues remain and details are fuzzy. How will the legislation work for great teachers who work with challenging student populations? How will it ensure that teachers who teach in suburban schools with great test scores aren’t the beneficiaries of higher pay simply because they inherited schools with higher test scores?

As the details of the new administration’s platform emerge, many of these questions will be answered. However, time will tell. We all know that the No Child Left Behind legislation was not perfect. But parts of it did work. It is my hope that we will see further, though different, gains in education through the Obama administration’s plans.

Please share your thoughts and comments. And remember, we can disagree without being disagreeable.