Can Performance Pay for Teachers Work in Philadelphia?

by Christopher Paslay


It’s no secret that Philadelphia School District officials are looking to implement performance-based teacher pay in an effort to increase student achievement.  Although statistics show that performance pay is used in 10 percent of America’s school districts and affects up to 20 percent of K-12 teachers and students, awarding pay bonuses to teachers is a complex issue and its results are varied and inconclusive. 


However, there are several things we do know about performance pay.  According to an article in Education Week written by professors James W. Guthrie and Matthew G. Springer (The Question of Performance Pay, 10/29/08), in order for performance pay to be effective, it must follow several guidelines:


          1.  Performance pay must be based on what teachers can reasonably accomplish, and student performance targets must be announced in advance.


          2.  Pay calculation procedures must be transparent, and the bonuses must be perceived by teachers to be financially significant.


          3.  Performance pay should not discourage teamwork among teachers, but must discourage free-riding.


Research shows a quality teacher can substantially impact student achievement regardless of a student’s IQ, neighborhood and socioeconomic level.  Studies also suggest pay bonuses do have an impact on a teacher’s overall effort in the classroom. 


However, the question still remains: Can performance pay work in Philadelphia?  Or more importantly, Can performance pay improve the academic achievement of our city’s children?


Although I applaud the District’s effort to raise the academic bar for our students, my 12 years of teaching experience tells me that performance pay, as a whole, is not a workable option in Philadelphia.  Here’s why.


The biggest pitfall is cash.  If there’s one thing experts have learned about performance-based pay in the last two decades, it’s that the bonus must be financially significant.  In other words, if the reward is too small, there is no incentive for teachers to intensify effort.  If past bonuses are any indication of what performance pay will look like in Philadelphia, teachers in the District could expect pay increases anywhere from three to five percent.  Translated into dollar values, that would be about $1,200-$3,500 a year, depending on your salary.


Now let’s be honest.  This kind of money is no realistic motivator.  If the teacher isn’t fired-up to teach already, tossing her two or three thousand dollars more a year (less after taxes), isn’t going to make her change her established routines. 


How much money would it take to ramp-up the effort of the non-motivated, complacent educator?  At the minimum, $5,000 to $7,500.  This would be a salary increase of 10 to 15 percent.  Does the District have that kind of money lying around?  Not on your life.  So monetarily speaking, performance pay in Philadelphia wouldn’t work.


A second problem of performance pay is setting student performance targets.  Many of the District’s failing schools are not only plagued by discipline problems and high teacher turn-over, but by organizational problems as well.  It’s a case of Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Some schools have their hands full with simple safety issues, so where are they going to find the time to set-up and reliably assess student performance targets.  Note the word RELIABLY.


Third you have the issue of personality.  Loose translation: There is the possibility of a bias by the principal or regional superintendent based on the teacher’s relationship with administration.  I like you so you get evaluated this way, and I don’t like you so you get evaluated that way.  Interpretation of student performance targets can be very subjective.  And for this reason, performance pay can very quickly become political.


Although performance-based pay has improved the academic achievement in some school districts across the nation, the Philadelphia School District is too big (and cash-strapped), to effectively implement such a strategy.  A good alternative would be to raise the base salaries of all teachers, which might very well attract and retain the kind of quality educators the District is looking for.

2 thoughts on “Can Performance Pay for Teachers Work in Philadelphia?

  1. Mr. Paslay presents a clear and understandable argument against performance pay incentives. I also like that he brings in outside experts with other insights and viewpoints. All in all, this is a difficult area to address, understand, implement, pay for, and assess. I don’t see that the benefits readily outweigh the costs.

  2. Wow, That was the first article I’ve read on this issue that deals with the concrete reality of teacher performance pay: can it realistically happen. As I was reading, I found myself reflecting on other myriad problems that could complicate this type of teacher motivation. Could a small group of students with a personal grudge sabatoge test result? Chris, you have a gift for making the inscrutably complex more readily understandable. Thanx.

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