Pay for performance is a very popular education reform plan. The fact that pay for performance doesn't seem to work very well - I give you The VA scandal as just the latest failure - doesn't seem to dampen the fervor for it. I suppose it's popular because it sounds like it would work, and it lets reformers talk about paying teachers more without actually doing that so much, as this article eventually points out, much to its own headline's dismay.
(I also note, as I must always, that the people who are selling pay for performance never want to submit their own jobs to the same scrutiny. This goes both for the various DC public school central office administrators running IMPACT Plus and the investment bankers making big returns on charter schools and ed reform.)
And we know specifically that pay for performance has had ugly effects in schools already. Atlanta is one of the saddest examples. The New Yorker recently ran a story about Parks Middle School, the subject of many glowing articles and education reform joy during its heyday and the subject of forty or so pages recounting widespread cheating in the eventual investigative report. The article is worth reading, although it glosses over some of the other scandals at Parks (nepotism, sexual harassment, embezzlement, all involving the principal, whose conduct belies his claim that he wouldn't have cheated for money).
Having read the report in its entirety, though, the story that really sticks with me is Harper Archer Middle School's. (Harper Archer's narrative is in the second part of the report, available at the link above). Harper Archer had the misfortune of being co-located with a district administrative team, and that team is believed to be responsible for the cheating. Not the educators at Harper Archer, nor the principal: the Deputy Superintendent.
You see, Harper Archer had been making small but significant gains in performance. Despite having a disproportionately high percentage of students with special needs, improvement was happening. In fact, the Harper Archer staff discussed in the narrative seem to share a collaborative spirit, a real commitment to their students, and a shared purpose.
This was not a popular attitude in Atlanta. Both the principal and vice principal were put on improvement plans and given a mandate to increase test scores. The principal was pushed to place teachers on performance plans if their test scores did not increase; he refused to do this and specifically instructed teachers not to engage in any unethical behavior. He strongly felt that his hard-working teachers had the skills to support their students and that slow, steady progress was valuable. (The principal also wondered why children were matriculating at Harper Archer with outstanding fifth grade test scores and poor academic skills, which earned him a reprimand from his Deputy Superintendent.)
The Deputy Superintendent's other suggestion - outside punishing teachers - was to visit Parks Middle School. Despite the fact that an investigation had already suggested cheating at Parks, the hard working educators at Harper Archer were told to emulate it.
The principal resigned after not being offered a contract for the 2009 school year.
But guess what? The 2008 CRCT scores came back with double digit gains! Just like Parks!
When interviewed, not one of the teachers admitted to cheating. Several mentioned being heavily pressured by the Deputy Superintendent to increase test scores; some believed that the principal resigned because he had been asked to cheat. To a one, they felt classroom teachers at Harper Archer would not cheat. Some refused to give the test scores to students because the scores were so unbelievable.
When asked about who could have been responsible for a cheating, the principal, vice-principal, and teaching staff all pointed to the Deputy Superintendent and her staff. Some noted that the Deputy Superintendent had access to the test and was coming to the building very early and staying very late during testing. Others noted that their tests were out of order when they received them each morning; one was informed by a custodian that the district staff told her the students were testing very well.
So at Harper Archer, you have a staff committed to working with a high needs population and having some real success. But because their success is reasonable and measured, it's not enough. They needed to be more like Parks.
This is the end result of pay for performance, then. The enormous cheating at Parks wasn't only bad for those students, but students throughout the District. And when teachers and administrators were unwilling to sacrifice their principals for their paychecks, then Deputy Superintendents were willing to take that step themselves.
Ultimately, this is what pay for performance gets you. Because Parks was willing to cheat, they created an entirely false standard to which every other school could be held.
Christopher Waller created a toxic climate of secrecy and cheating at Parks. He turned teachers against each other, firing those who wouldn't get with his program. He used performance plans and reprimands to rid himself of teachers who did not want to cheat. He was showered with attention, positive press, and bonuses.
Michael Milstead created a climate of teachers who worked together and believed that their students could succeed. He encouraged collaboration and ethical conduct and protected his teachers from District demands, because he could see that the students at Harper Archer were making academic gains. He got fired.
Which school served students better?
Which school succeeded under a pay for performance plan?