Should a Teacher’s Pay be Influenced by Student Test Scores?

Updated June 21, 2016 |
Recent initiatives propose basing an educator's compensation on student test scores, but there are certainly two sides to the debate. Learn about the pros and cons of the proposals and how they may shape teacher tenure in the future.
Teaching salaries may no longer depend simply upon tenure or the type of degree an educator holds. Instead, their compensation as teachers may be based upon how well their students perform on tests!

NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg recently declared that student test scores will be a deciding factor in determining which teachers should be awarded tenure and which should not.  Considering that tenure influences a teacher’s pay, this declaration inherently ties together test scores and compensation. Bloomberg also made a speech in Washington, alongside secretary of education Arne Duncan, in which he called upon the NY state legislature to require all school districts in the state of New York to use "data-driven systems" to evaluate teacher and principal performance.
 
Although such proposals for performance-based pay for teachers have historically been fiercely opposed by teachers' unions, they are gaining ground in a number of states and seem to be part of a general larger trend towards increased school accountability.

Supporters: Performance-Based Pay Will Benefit Students
 
The ranks of performance-based pay advocates have been growing in recent years. As the New York Times reports, Mr. Duncan said during Bloomberg's recent Washington press conference that "Everyone agrees the current system is broken." Those who support basing teacher evaluations on student test scores tend to say that performance-based pay plans will benefit student learning by keeping the best teachers in the classroom and qualifying schools for increased federal funding.

* Performance-Based Pay Will Help Keep High-Quality Teachers in the Classroom
Using student test scores as a factor in deciding which teachers should earn tenure will allow principals to make sure that they retain the highest-quality teachers on their faculty, argue supporters of plans like Bloomberg's.
 
Deciding whether or not a teacher should get tenure takes on increasing importance in our present age of frequent budget cuts and the accompanying need for teacher layoffs. Under our current system, the teachers most likely to lose their jobs during times of budget cuts are those that have been hired most recently. However, adopting a teacher evaluation system based on student test scores, Bloomberg argues, would allow principals to make "layoffs based on merit" rather than seniority.

* Performance-Based Pay May Qualify Schools for "Race to the Top" Money
A new federal program, called "Race to the Top," will award up to $4.35 billion in grants to states whose schools adopt innovative programs. The program is particularly eager to reward programs that focus on data-based instruction and the recruitment and retention of quality teachers. Many state legislators feel that basing teacher evaluations on student tests scores would be a move towards the type of data-based instructional decisions that the "Race to the Top" program aims to reward.
Opponents: Negative Impact on the System and Students 

Bloomberg's plan and others like it meet frequent criticism from teachers and teachers' unions. The most frequently cited concerns about basing teacher job evaluations on student scores on standardized tests are as follows:

* Standardized Tests Do Not Accurately Measure What Is Taught Throughout the Year
Kate Walsh, president of National Council on Teacher Quality, told the New York Times that most teachers, even the "good ones," tend to be hesitant to support performance-based pay plans because the standardized tests that would form the basis for these data-driven tenure decisions "aren't linked to the actual curriculum."
 
* Standards on which Tests Are Based May Need Revamping
Some critics of the move to performance-based pay plans say that before such a change is implemented, states need to re-evaluate the standards upon which the tests are based. Some say that the standards are not rigorous enough and that students are not tested on the types of higher-order critical thinking skills that are most important for success in our 21st century world.

* Increased Competition Among Teachers Could be Bad for Students
The results of a 2007 national reform in Portugal that linked teacher pay to student performance on tests indicate that increased competition accompanying a performance-based pay scale could be negative for students. A report on the consequences of this experiment theorized that teachers became too focused on competing for the limited number of promotions available under the plan to devote time to collaborating with other teachers, even when such collaboration would have been in the best interests of the students.
 
* Lack of Teacher Buy-In Could Prevent Plan from Succeeding
Finally, many educators feel that such a major reform in the way in which teacher performance is evaluated should not be made without input from the teachers themselves. If teachers feel that a new performance-based pay system is being imposed upon them from distant legislators who do not understand the realities of a classroom, they may feel disenfranchised and resentful, which could ultimately have negative results for their students.

Possible Solutions

For the proposals to be successful, most education experts seem to agree that changes must be accompanied by revisions in the standardized testing system that make tests more closely linked to state content standards. State content standards may also need to be revamped in order to ensure that they are aligned with what up-to-date educational research indicates students need to learn to be competitive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.  Finally, legislators will need to find a way to involve teachers to ensure that teachers "buy in" to the process and pass on a renewed commitment to excellence to their students.

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