The Politics of Performance Pay

Yesterday, Mike DeBonis enlightened DC educators reading The Washington City Paper about some of the details surrounding the new teachers contract that's been years in the waiting.  Candi Peterson reposted it with her comments on The Washington Teacher blog here.

After reading through the article, there were a couple of things that caught my eye.  The basics of the new contract include an immediate raise of 11 percent, and an expected 21.6 percent raise through 2012 (if I'm reading it right, which I'm pretty sure I am).  It would also allow teachers to "qualify into" a performance pay system, upon which they would relinquish some rights afforded to non-performance-pay teachers, but they would NOT relinquish the right to tenure.  There are obviously a lot more changes it would make, but I think those are the two most significant.

Additionally, there were a few paragraphs in DeBonis's article that I'd like to highlight (in case you don't read the whole thing, which you probably should if your employed by DCPS).

First, concerning those foundations that donated money to fund performance pay:
"As yet unaddressed: what happens in 2012 when the contract expires. Do the foundations have any ongoing commitment to funding DCPS, or would the city have to make up the difference, or would teachers face the possibility of a pay cut?"
Uhhhh - yea - what would happen in that situation?  I hope the reforms enacted by the contract will help students learn, but what if Rhee's administration isn't capable of coming up with the data necessary to impress their donor foundations?  What then!?

"The contract proposal does address two extremely sticky areas of labor-management relations of late. One is the IMPACT teacher evaluation system, which is the foundation for much of what the contract proposes; the teachers union can have no direct say on evaluations under city law, but DCPS has agreed, according to the documents, to form a working group with WTU reps to "review teachers' concerns and suggestions regarding implementation of IMPACT....and to make recommendations to resolve issues and make improvements." IMPACT, additionally, will be subject to an outside review."
So IMPACT has flaws (even Jason Kamras would admit that).  The question is whether these flaws are, in fact, fixable.  In my brief experience with IMPACT (three evaluations: two by an in-house administrator and one by a master educator), I found it to be outrageously nitpicky and necessarily subjective (no matter how much training the district puts any evaluator through, I really don't think calibration of such a thing is possible).  Rumors were that master educators were being told to score teachers poorly the first time around, and administrators' scores were often even harder on teachers. Either way, a teacher's IMPACT score is often much more a function of their evaluator than the quality of teaching being done.  And this is probably intended.  Rhee probably knows exactly how many "highly effective" teachers she can afford.  If IMPACT evaluations begin to show that she has more than she expects, then the order will be given to score teachers lower (it's not really about effectively evaluating teachers people, it's about playing the political game).  But I don't think we'll have to worry about too many high ratings.  Administrators at my school were OFTEN overheard boasting over who scored their teachers lower - SERIOUSLY.

While I applaud the effort of Kamras and IMPACT to help generate discussion surrounding what good teaching is, and to provide helpful feedback to teachers to improve their practice, the significant variability in scores as a result of a difference in evaluator will hopefully be something that gives educators pause when they consider using it for performance pay.

However, as I implied above, I don't think any real concerns over how effective IMPACT is really matter to 825.  The reality here is that this contract is where Rhee makes or breaks her reputation as an educational reformer.  As a result, IMPACT is cast as a ground-breaking evaluation tool, but even if that's what it was intended as from the beginning (which I think we can be sure is not the case), I think they've run into an insurmountable problem in attempting to implement performance pay: you will NEVER be able to objectively rank teachers' quality BECAUSE NOT EVERYTHING IN EDUCATION CAN BE QUANTIFIED AND OBSERVED (that one's for you Derek).  So yes, there will be some teachers we can point to as clearly doing a poor job, and there will some on the opposite end of the spectrum - and I believe there are very broad qualities of teachers that we can measure longitudinally (does a teacher escalate conflict? does a teacher have an objective? does a teacher develop positive relationships?).  But when you get down to rating/ranking two competent professionals, you're guaranteed to get lost in pointless nitpicky arguments over how many times the objective was stated, whether it was truly made relevant to the students' lives, how many intelligences you hit, and so on.  And if you accept that (and I'm sure not everybody will, but I bet most teachers will), then you begin to see that IMPACT is merely a necessary political step required for Rhee to claim that she transformed urban education with performance pay.


Leads me to believe that this contract is motivated 90% by politics and 10% by a desire to really do what's right for students.  I suspect this type of reform begins by a desire to do what's right for students, but once you get this far into the game, there's no more room for reconsidering your stances or listening thoughtfully to the other side.  I was initially impressed by Michelle Rhee, and I still am to a great degree (if not for her actions, for her amazing determination).  In person, she speaks well and has an ability to warm people to her ideas despite her reputation as stubborn and obstinate.  I like a lot of her ideas on the surface.  But the more I understand about the politics of the district, and the more stories I hear about her actions that the press doesn't report, the more I worry about her intentions.

I think the following from DeBonis's piece is telling (regarding why Rhee did not secure local foundations donations as a means of funding performance pay):
"Q: Why are there no local foundations involved?
A: Many local foundations generously fund school-based programs throughout DC Public Schools. Large national foundations are the appropriate source for funding..."
Read: national funding foundations allow us a better opportunity to get national coverage and take credit when American education is transformed forever as a result of our policies.

It seems Rhee is little desperate to show the country that she can be THE American education reformer.  More evidence of this comes from the Race to the Top reviewers' notes about DCPS's application.  They noted the application's focus seemed to be on gaining national prestige rather than on providing evidence of improving education.  They implied that DC's planned reform efforts are largely fluff, without much evidence that those reforms can truly be acted on.  (For more on this, see Conducting the Inner Light).

An outsider might think that creating a system that raises test scores and improving education would be synonymous, but they're not.  One is about generating and manipulating data, improving standardized test scores, and feeding it to an friendly media source (I'm looking at you, Washington Post).  The other is about giving disadvantaged students an opportunity to expand their minds and their opportunities, not by limiting their work to answering English and math multiple choice questions, but by developing positive relationships with them and helping them to express themselves and develop a natural love of learning.  The two necessarily converge in some measure, but in systems where the political cost of poor test scores is high, I suspect that measure is rather small.

So I have mixed feelings about this new contract.  On one hand I believe IMPACT provides a nice means of generating discussion around what good teaching in DC really is.  But on the other hand, I'm afraid the performance pay that's linked to subjective administrative reviews and test scores will be far more likely to drive professionals out of such systems (which will necessarily suck in more inexperienced TFA types) than it will to genuinely improve the educational quality provided to the District's students.

Why will it drive professionals out of the system?  Because they know that subjective reviews from administrators and DCCAS are a set of indicators that, as often as not, will inaccurately judge their efforts and performance as teachers - and that inaccurate judgement could lead to a freeze in their position on the salary scale or unemployment.  For further discussion on what truly makes for improved teaching, please see the comments section on my post, "Fighting the Silver Bullet Approach: An Open Letter to Newsweek."  There were truly some insightful views expressed there.  I'd love to see more discussion around that.

Lastly, I have a few questions as somebody considering teaching in DC in August:

1) What is going to happen to the master educators?  In conversations I've had with a few of them, many of them expressed disappointment at not having time to do professional development as they'd been promised when they were hired.  I think everyone's heard about how far behind they are.  What went wrong with them this year?  What changes will be made with them next year?

2) When will administrators be evaluated under IMPACT?  As a teacher, I want to know that my administrator is being held accountable in the same way I am.  And when I see an administrator abuse a colleague, or break the law, or facilitate a staff meeting that is a horrible waste of everyone's time, I want to know that they will be held accountable.  What recourse, aside from our often ineffective union, will teachers have to take action against an outrageous lack of professionalism?  This is the reason I left my school.  So if Rhee says part of this contract is aimed at retaining effective teachers, what things will be put in place so that aspiring excellent educators like myself are supported in our efforts to improve rather than being told that we're racists and that it wouldn't matter if we were hit by a bus?  THIS IS A SERIOUS QUESTION THAT NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED.  PLEASE - IF YOU'RE A BLOGGER, RAISE THIS ISSUE IN YOUR BLOG.  IF YOU WORK DOWNTOWN, RAISE THIS ISSUE WITH RHEE'S TEAM!!!!!!  WE NEED GREAT PROFESSIONAL LEADERS BEFORE WE CAN EVER HOPE TO CREATE AN ARMY OF GREAT TEACHERS.

3) DeBonis's article mentions that new teacher centers are being set up in order to begin a new emphasis on teacher-led PD in the district.  It mentions that the centers will be set up like the ones in New York City.  So - I guess they're successful there?  What do they look like?  Who runs them?  Do teachers in NYC like them?

4) What will happen if Rhee leaves her position before this contract is up?  Is a side effect of implementing the contract the insurance that Rhee won't lose her job (as a new mayor may be hesitant to bring somebody else in to work with such a contract)?  Are the donating foundations as interested in working with DCPS sans Rhee?

There are a lot of things to think about here.  I look forward to seeing how this plays out.


  1. Great post - offhand I'd say the contract is 100% political and any benefit to kids is serendipitious.

    E Favorite

  2. Here is my reading list on human motivation:

    Youtube by “Drive” author, Dan Pink

    If you have time, read his book – it’s a new bestseller and an easy read. It is not about some theory he has developed, it is about numerous, long-standing, empirically-proven and well-respected studies on human motivation.

    Here are two interviews with Pink, one from NPR and another from an educational organization.

    And here is a separate Harvard working paper on the same general subject. It’s a very quick read:

  3. Commenting on a comment :) In the same vein as Pink, also try ALL of Alfie Kohn's books (if you haven't already).

  4. Thanks for the suggestions. Just watched the TED clip - very interesting.

  5. Excellent reading, thank you E-favorite and P.S. Montessori. The new direction of DC public schools is very troubling, the carrot is dangling with just enough honey that the starving teachers in our school might just bite, the contact has been a long time in the making that teachers now feel that it is now or never.

  6. Anon at 125: I agree. I think a lot of teachers will feel like it's now or never to vote yes on this. I just wanted to share something that Nathan Saunders pointed out today at the Department of Education.

    Article 40 of the contract says: "Nothing in this agreement shall be construed as a promise that Congress, the DC Council, or any other organization shall appropriate sufficient funds to meet the obligations set forth in this agreement."

    Please read the full contract at before you make any decisions!

  7. Yeah, that Article 40 scares the c**p out of me. I am going to be at least one of the Q&A sessions, and I am VERY curious to see how Parker explains that.

  8. I have a lot of sympathy with the unhappy teachers. But we really are well paid here in the District, and getting even better paid. In their heart of hearts, teachers know that quite a few of their colleagues have given up on the students, and lay everything at the door of socio-economic problems. As a trained educator, it is easy to notice that many will shoulder any responsibility for education. They go thru the motions. It is very sad. Rhee is the first superintendent ever who has tried to measure and help, or when those efforts seem hopeless or are rejected, put the ineffective teachers out to pasture. That is a good thing, and I think the rally showed that to be the case in terms of how it was framed and the attendance. Few young teachers.

  9. Anon at 728: Thanks for the comment. I agree that one of the interests fighting this pay for performance movement is that of ineffective teachers who don't want to lose their jobs. And I agree that we saw some of that at the rally. However, I believe there are certainly other interests fighting here - those who truly are afraid that many of Rhee's reforms will lead to a decrease in the quality of education.

    I'm trying to keep an open mind, but more and more I find myself drawn to their side. I sincerely fear the use of private money in public education. I'm afraid of a pay for performance system being embraced across the country that will do little to improve education, but a lot to undermine the profession of teaching.

    Why do I think this will undermine the teaching profession? As I mentioned in my post, I really don't think IMPACT (or any system like it) can do much more in the way of providing quality evaluations of teachers than many systems we already have. Yes - it can add to the discussion surrounding what good teaching really looks like, but when it comes down to it, any administrator who doesn't like you (or doesn't know how to teach themselves) will likely lower your ratings unfairly, thereby possibly harming your pay or job security, despite the fact that you may be doing an amazing job. I'm afraid that when teachers discover this to be the case, they'll decide that few people truly respect the amazing amount of detail and effort that goes into truly excellent pedagogy. They will leave the profession for a place where they will be treated with more dignity and respect for their practice.

    I acknowledge that I could be wrong here, but I don't think I am. I agree that Rhee has done many good things for DCPS, but I'm afraid her ultimate stand in education reform will be to the enormous detriment of so many kids that need a better education, not higher test scores.

  10. Latest from Rhee, she can't do the math. Ok, this is now getting F'ing weird. (Rhee's budget surplus revelation angers teachers) unions How can we vote for this now, how can we trust her about anything?

  11. Anon at 928: I completely agree. That boggles my mind. If you didn't think the RIF was intended back when she hired all those new teachers over the summer (myself included), this is about as much proof as you're going to get. Rhee has said over and over again she's willing to "bend" (read: break) the rules to get things done.

    Maybe she has the students' best interest at heart (I have no idea, but I'm pretty sure if they're there, they're messed up with something else), but I can't believe that she thinks she can so blatantly disrespect such a large group of employees and move merrily on her way. The woman needs a serious lesson in leadership and political tact.


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