‘Pay for performance’ program offers little clarity in decisions over extra pay for ‘best’ teachers

Last week, we submitted comments on the ill-conceived Local Optional Teacher Designation System, also known as “pay-for-performance,” which is a program pushed by TEA to allegedly reward the “best” teachers. However, because the program is so heavily reliant on standardized test scores, there are some very peculiar payouts for teachers who are recipients of additional funds with little clarity on how such decisions are reached locally.  

The program on which this designation system is modeled took place in Dallas and showed that incentive systems based on testing create disturbing impacts, including disincentivizing the teaching of struggling students, unfairly compensating teachers, causing high turnover and low morale, and exacerbating the problem of teaching to the test. We know about these problems, because three of our members, who teach in Dallas ISD, have benefited from higher pay from the system on which the TIA is based, the Texas Excellence Initiative. When the Legislature discussed implementing this faulty system statewide in 2019, these members provided powerful testimony to dispel the hype and reveal the ugly side of incentive programs based on testing. Their testimony also illustrated the unfairness of some benefitting from the performance of others’ students because the STAAR only measures certain subjects.   

 Our Dallas members told the committee how comparisons of median salaries to the socioeconomic status of each campus showed the system rewarding those educators who already are teaching students achieving well. They saw this pattern across the district and found that the largest raises were given to teachers at wealthier schools and magnet campuses. These teachers are deserving of the extra compensation, but left out are equally hard-working and effective teachers at other campuses.  

The current program has reached only 3,650 teachers who teach in these approved districts and it is benefitting fewer than 1% of Texas teachers—all at a time when all Texas teachers are doing work they never imagined under dangerous conditions.   

As our members told the lawmakers, the Legislature should “start listening to the real experts in education policy—teachers—and refuse any measures that would promote pay-for-test scores.” We agree and would assert that engaging in pay-for-performance schemes ultimately hurts students with the most needs, especially at a time when educators are reinventing how public schools deliver instruction and students are still acclimating to new ways of receiving instruction.   

There is also a lack of transparency regarding how these decisions are met, how totals are reached per teacher, and the total amount of state money being spent on this program during a pandemic where we see schools stretching every dollar. Instead of the TEA choosing haves and have-nots, the state should be focusing on using these designation system funds as part of an effort to provide critical retention bonuses to educators and staff throughout Texas. 

In the past, teachers were able to be observed under the same conditions performing similar work. However, since the start of the pandemic, teachers are teaching under conditions for which they never trained nor were ever observed. It is neither valid nor reliable to base teacher pay on their students’ performance under conditions never envisioned.