Commentary | Education

Lessons—Novel Way on Teacher Pay

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Novel way on teacher pay

By Richard Rothstein

CINCINNATI — A radical experiment in teacher pay here could become a national model if successful. It rewards teachers for performance, and measures that performance not by student test results but by efforts at thorough evaluation of teacher skills.

It seems reasonable that better teaching should elicit more learning, but what levers can districts use to get better teaching? Raising salaries when student scores improve is one way, but there are too few students in any class for small gains to be accurate reflections of instructional competence. Conditions beyond teachers’ control affect scores. And making raises contingent on score increases could create incentives for an excessive focus on tests, displacing other important activities.

A second approach is to raise teacher pay to attract more qualified college graduates to the profession. But as a practical matter, most dollars for teacher salary increases typically go to those already employed, not to novices.

In Cincinnati, as elsewhere, teachers have always received raises for years of service, regardless of performance, and for more graduate study, even in courses unrelated to teaching. But this year the district is evaluating teacher skills. Starting in 2003, the more proficient will get higher salaries. The pay of others could be cut.

With help from Charlotte Danielson of the Educational Testing Service and Allan Odden, a University of Wisconsin professor, the district and the teachers union have agreed to judge teachers on 16 distinct skill standards, with multiple criteria for each. Pay will rely on the quality of teaching, not on student test results.

One of the first to have been judged is Cheryl Staples, a second- grade teacher. By year’s end, Ms. Staples, a 22-year veteran, will have been observed four times by a full- time evaluator and twice by her principal. The principal has also graded Ms. Staples’s lesson plans, examples of student work, letters to parents, her participation on faculty committees and whether she seeks added education to improve her teaching.

Ms. Staples will no doubt get the highest rating and thus a raise when new salaries take effect. The evaluator gave her high marks for criteria like how she engaged pupils in lessons and whether there was mutual respect among the children. In five years, she will be evaluated anew.

In some areas, the evaluator and the principal noted that further growth was possible. Perhaps Ms. Staples could have done more to help pupils react to peers’  responses when discussing a story. Perhaps she didn’t fully use all types of  assessments — children’s answers to questions, written work, their efforts at self-evaluation, and tests.

Many kinks must be worked out before other districts copy the plan. Cincinnati has commissioned research to see if different evaluators give similar teachers similar ratings.

And nobody yet knows the plan’s cost. The district expected its 12 evaluators to assess about 700 of Cincinnati’s 3,100 teachers this year, with time allotted for training, observations, written reports and meetings with principals to seek consensus on ratings. But this did not fully account for travel between schools or the practical difficulties that keep observations from continuing until the last day of a term. Perhaps fewer observations will be required.

Further, the school board and the union may not share expectations. Board members expect little change in average salary, thinking that as many teachers will get cuts as raises. But union leaders expect overall increases, because they believe teachers will more often demonstrate exemplary skills.

It is too early to say, but the union outlook seems more realistic. There may be more good teachers than the board realizes, and perhaps the new system will itself spur improvement. The standards give clarity about what is expected. The district trains  teachers to meet them. Teachers should learn from their evaluations, so the plan itself could help them up the pay ladder. Whether the board will keep its word and finance higher salaries if many prove deserving is of course unknowable.

The Cincinnati superintendent, Steven J. Adamowski, was once a fellow of the conservative Hudson Institute, where many believe that student scores ought to determine pay. Dr. Adamowski says this is impractical for now, given the number of skeptics, but hopes to show that students make greater gains when their teachers earn higher ratings. If so, he expects to convince the skeptics that salaries could ultimately rely on student scores.

Designing salary incentives to improve instruction is a gamble, because it will always be difficult to measure precisely the effort and skill of teachers. But if the key to more learning is better teaching, Cincinnati’s experiment is the one to watch.

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