There are ’no incentives for teachers to be really good.’ Can performance pay help Kentucky?

The methodology used for the study included scores across two dimensions, quality and safety. The Kentucky Department of Education is located at 300 Sower Blvd. in Frankfort.
The methodology used for the study included scores across two dimensions, quality and safety. The Kentucky Department of Education is located at 300 Sower Blvd. in Frankfort. Bobby Ellis

School districts should be able to pay, incentivize and reward teachers based on their effectiveness, according to Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis who said he would ask legislators to change state law.

Low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities are less likely than their more affluent, white and nondisabled peers to have access to highly skilled, experienced teachers, and reforms are necessary, Lewis told members of the Kentucky Board of Education Wednesday.

There are “currently no incentives for teachers to be really good,” Lewis said.

School districts should have greater flexibility to reward teacher performance in different ways, Lewis told the Herald-Leader. If school districts want to tie students’ achievement test scores to teacher pay, ”I don’t think there’s a problem with that.”

“I’m not supportive of using student performance on standardized tests wholly as a way of evaluating teachers,” Lewis said. But using test data, especially improvement in students’ academic results, as incentives would be positive.

Kentucky Education Association spokesman David Patterson said KEA opposes performance-based pay for educators because it is not based on a teacher’s expertise and effort.

“Performance is usually determined by student standardized test scores, which have been proven to disadvantage students because of inherent cultural biases embedded in the tests. Teachers who teach students with significant cultural, language, financial or other challenges will be disadvantaged in such a scheme. In fact, performance-based pay actually works as a disincentive for highly-experienced educators to take on challenged student populations, which is what the current administration claims it wants,” Patterson said.

“Standardized test scores of students are also based ... on student performance reflecting their answers on a single day test that doesn’t adequately assess multiple measures of student growth,” Patterson said.

Laura Leigh Goins, deputy chief of staff for media relations for the Kentucky House speaker’s office, declined to comment Friday. Kentucky Senate leaders did not immediately comment.

Currently, Kentucky teachers are paid according to a salary schedule based on their number of years of service and levels of education. Salary schedules are set at the local district level but must comply with the requirements of state law.

“ I wish I could tell you that every Kentucky student has access to an effective teacher, but we all know that is simply not true,” Lewis said.

“Unfortunately, in classrooms across Kentucky, too many of our students are served by long-term substitute teachers or teachers who lack the knowledge, skills, experience, disposition, or willingness to meet their academic needs,” Lewis said. “In Kentucky, as across the U.S. — with exceptions of course — our more experienced, more effective teachers tend to more often serve middle-income and affluent white students.

Teachers with less classroom experience and less formal training are often placed in the most challenging classrooms, schools, and neighborhoods, often with little support, Lewis said. “That’s bad for the new teachers, and it leads to why they end up leaving the profession. And it’s bad for kids because often times those are the kids who need the most experienced, best teachers.”

“I contend that our unwillingness, and even resistance, to ensuring that children with the greatest need have the same opportunity as their more privileged peers to have an effective teacher is the greatest educational equity policy failure of our time,” Lewis said at Wednesday’s Kentucky Board of Education meeting.

Lewis said state data following a sample of black students who tested at the novice, or lowest level, in 2012-2013, showed that more than half of them remained at the novice level in reading and math when they reached eighth grade.

“This is criminal,” he said. “We have to do better.”

Lewis said public education has significant financial challenges, but it also needs major structural and policy reform.

“By policy, practices, or constraints of collective bargaining agreements, we ensure that our most vulnerable children are less likely to have high-quality teachers, when their need is the greatest,” said Lewis. “Simply increasing funding for public education will not address that failure.”