The Other Problem with Performance-Based Pay

Ryan Davis

I was in the middle of writing a piece on standardized testing when I read the news that our Commissioner of Education suggested opening the door for performance-based pay.  The forces of standardization and testing, at some point, merit a direct and thorough rebuttal, because they so deeply frustrate our ability to give students the schools they deserve. But, for now, I found the Commissioner’s proposal an illuminating place to begin an exploration of why the fight against standardized testing is so crucial.    

There are many reactions we should have when confronted with performance-based pay.  We should reject the systemic (mis)incentive it offers teachers and schools. We certainly should question its behaviorist assumptions, especially its assumptions about what inspires and motivates teachers, or anyone, to do their best work.  And, we should challenge its validity, fairness, and effectiveness.

But, we must also recognize that performance-based pay is only the natural outgrowth of a belief system that valorizes the self-tightening cycle between standardization and verification.  Performance-based pay is but one head of the Hydra that is our standards and testing industrial complex.

As a branding, “performance-based pay” expertly plays semantic deceptions.  It creates a straw-man that easily appeals outside of schools and is perhaps even a little tempting to dedicated, hardworking teachers: better teachers should be rewarded.  The apparent generality is easily unexamined. But, here words like “performance” and “better” exact a great precision, signifying and reinforcing a meaning strictly defined by standards and testing.  

In reality, performance-based pay is compensation for the adherence to and administration of the aims of private companies and bureaucrats over the needs of the students in front of us and the communities around us.  It is compensation for being complicit in the further hegemony of a dominant culture, instead of working towards the liberation of all people and cultures through the dismantling of systems that oppress. At best, it is a bribe to look the other way as the view through which we see the capacities of our students continually narrows and the ways in which they can express their brilliance are slowly extinguished.  

Maybe, “performance-based pay” needs a new brand.  A “corporate stipend”? A “cultural pay-for-play”? There are certainly better options.  But, the point remains that even accepting the nomenclature is a tacit approval and promotion of the underlying machinery of standards and testing that animate the larger body.  

When caught in its jaws, there is no choice but to cut off the aggressing head of the Hydra.  But, we know that will not ultimately defeat it. As long as the body remains, the treats will regenerate and come from different places, like accountability or imposed curriculum or endless test-prep or etc… Any system that seeks to rank and sort our students and our schools will eventually seek to do the same to us.  The former, of course, is the most pernicious.

As we are forced to fight the various heads of this Hydra, we must not forget to strike at the source.  We need to constantly remind policymakers (and each other) of this: Education is not mechanical. It is a fundamentally human endeavor.  We are not in search of the optimal levers and buttons to press in order to replicate a prototype. People are varied and beautiful, and schools should reflect this by being communities that love and cultivate and empower – a way of being profoundly opposed to the conveyor belt of standardization and testing.  If we can change the cultural acceptance of this narrow and relatively new view of education, we may be surprised at what other threats fall along with it.

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