Is Performance Based Pay Really Such a Bad Idea?

Did you know some  schools and states are moving to a performance based pay model for their teachers? I’ve talked to several teachers who were looking for ways to show growth in their art program because of performance based pay. For example, in the state of Ohio, I understand they are piloting this year, and next year will be moving to a performance based pay model. Any large change such as this can bring out anxiety and additional pressure for teachers. Because I’m not personally living it, I may have a different perspective than most, but challenges aside, I always thought performance based pay didn’t sound like such a bad idea. Some past experiences have brought me to this conclusion, which I will share below: Don’t mind my venting a little here – I know this is a complicated and controversial subject – please read the article, but more importantly, add your own thoughts, opinions, and experiences to the comments section below! The AOE community wants to hear your thoughts on this important topic! Lots to discuss, so here we go…


A few years ago I was very honored to be invited to a National Art Ed Conference to speak in front of hundreds of Art Teachers, like yourselves. I eagerly walked  into the curriculum office at my school, excited to tell them I would be representing our district, our city, and our state at this conference.  No sooner had I shared the news was I quickly shut down. I was told I couldn’t represent the school district. They said “because we aren’t paying or sponsoring you to go, you are not allowed to attach our name to yourself at the conference at all.” WHAT? Confusion. I never asked them to pay for my ticket. I just simply wanted to share in the excitement and let them know one of their teachers was going to be sharing the GREAT things happening in their your schools. Oh well. I instead chose to go as a representative of The Art of Education, and have ever since at future conferences for this exact reason.

Unfortunately in today’s day and age, GENERIC RULES that are generated to protect everyone can really hinder those who are doing the right thing.

I found myself thinking in this situation: Does my merit mean absolutely nothing? Just because the school has a rule about not allowing teachers to representing the school if the school isn’t sponsoring them, does this mean there can be no exceptions?  If I were the school I would have taken a step back and said “mmmm, ok, this teacher is our department facilitator, has no infringements against her, has excellent rapport with families and students, and has data to show growth in her art department. I think we WANT to have her represent us, we’d be PROUD to have her represent us, and will allow this on a case by case scenario.

As a stark contrast, around the same time, my husband (who worked in marketing for a tool manufacturing company) got a similar honor, being asked to share his expertise at the first annual #140ConfDSM. He approached his boss with the same news, and his company couldn’t have been prouder! They gave him the day off, paid, to speak. They asked him to share their message and positive things they were doing with his audience, they even shared the video from his speech with the entire organization and applauded him for going the extra mile as an employee. Wow, what a contrast in philosophies!

This whole situation can be directly related to teacher pay…

Ask yourself: At what point can you really get reward for the great things you are doing instead of stifled by rules that mean the same for everyone? Does merit mean anything anymore? Of course you work hard, but you aren’t getting compensated for staying until 7:00 pm working on a new assessment you’ve created. You get the same as the teacher next door who is doing half of what you are. Why? Because the system has allowed this to be ok.

I know what you are going to say: I don’t teach for the money, I do it because I love the field of art education and want help kids love and appreciate art. YES! Do you get personal satisfaction for having am amazing art program, students who are engaged and parents who support you- OF COURSE! I am not denying that non-monetary motivations are sometimes the best. (Actually more often the best) HOWEVER, teachers are constantly complaining they aren’t being paid enough. So how do you explain this strange disconnect between “LOVING YOUR JOB” but constantly being dissatisfied with your pay. If you are chronically “overworked and underpaid” then do you have a solution to this problem?


You are already going above and beyond in so many areas. What if by doing these activities you could earn more money?  Earn more money not to do MORE, but to highlight and prove out the amazing things you are already doing. Sounds good to me, in theory.

Another thing to think about (this always bothers me): Why did you work hard in school? It’s connected to your grades. Why did you want good grades? So you could get a good teaching job. Why do you work hard at your teaching job? So you can feel good about yourself and help kids appreciate and learn about art. Noble goal, but these happy feelings don’t’ pay the bills, do they? The rest of the world gets a promotion because they work hard. Teachers have to pay money to earn more degrees to get paid more.  I always found this strange.

One of the biggest complaints of Merit Pay is the fairness of it all. You might be worried that if your administration or principal has something against you they won’t treat you fairly in an evaluation.  Of course this can be true, and is very unfortunate for those who are being treated this way. There are some really crappy people out there. I get it! My simple answer would be – Every single system if flawed. There are issues with our current system (no doubt) and there would be issues if we all moved to performance pay. However, this is how the rest of the entire world works in business. If you get a boss you don’t like, well, then find another job, or find a way to get along. Do amazing work that no one can find something to criticize you about, and you should be ok. This philosophy has always worked for me, which is why performance based pay doesn’t sound so scary.

If I were in charge, (which unfortunately I am not) this is how I would run Performance Based Pay:
It would be a multi-tired evaluation system. Of course, your principal evaluations would have a part of your performance. But surveys to families, students themselves, colleague input, and data that you present as evidence of learning all should factor in. Couldn’t data be the art show? (I have a lot of great assessment strategies to take a performance based product and put it into numbers that administration can understand) IT WOULD NOT BE SOLELY BASED ON TEST SCORES. I hate that. There are so many ways to show student achievement in art, and a test shouldn’t be one of them.

No matter how skeptical or fearful some teachers may be of performance-based pay, I thought it would be nice to hear a different perspective on the issue, just to get your mind turning. Remember- Every system in the world has it’s issues. So why not try something different? It’s time to shake things up in education and make some waves. We need something, don’t you agree?


Do you think I am off-my-rocker, or spot on?

Anyone out there on a performance based pay scale or moving to one soon? Tell us what it’s like. 

What other ideas or solutions do you have to this issue?

Jessica Balsley

Jessica Balsley is the Founder and President at AOE. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.


  • Leila

     Dear Jessica:

    GERNIC RULES has a typo. It should be GENERIC RULES. 

    Performance pay is what they call the system where no one is in a union and after you pay money for your MA or PhD they let you go because now you are way up on the pay schedule and they can hire someone who has just graduated to do what you do.  This is what happened at the District where I worked because the Arizona Legislature changed the rules of teacher tenure so there is no tenure.  They got rid of the Art, Music, and Computer teachers at the elementary school where I worked.  Any Art teachers they now have (Middle and High School) are new graduates.

    The Arizona Legislature has cut 1 billion from public school funding since 2009. In 2010, the voters voted to have a 1% sales tax in cigarettes to fund public schools.  The tax automatically ends on July 1, 2013. There is a proposition before the voters this election to re-instate the tax.  It is very clear in AZ that AZ state officials are interested in promoting charter schools. I think this is also clear to teachers in Chicago.  Perhaps it is different in Ohio. 

    When public schools are no more, and you are lucky to be hired by a charter school, no one will be talking about “merit” pay.
    I don’t think you are “off your rocker.”  I think you are
    expecting something called “merit pay” to be based on merit.  You think
    all those other teachers who are complaining must be those “bad”
    teachers that we have all heard about.
    Please wait until you have experienced the new teacher evaluations and then re-post. You may have different thoughts based on your experience of the new teacher evaluations.Leila 

    • Hi Leila,
      Thanks for sharing your insights- I don’t teach in Ohio, I live in Iowa, therefore these changes aren’t impacting me, I’ve just had a lot of teachers from Ohio contact me for assessment ideas so they can learn ways to show student progress and achievement to prepare for the upcoming changes.

  • Becky Abel

    I think the primary area of concern for many teachers is how the merits of a teacher and their performance are determined. You mentioned it above, but it is difficult to enact widespread evaluation like merit-based pay in a way that is consistent and reliable (though I agree that many different aspects should be considered if it were put in place).
    I recently finished my Master’s (hurrah!) in Art Ed and one of the things I found myself talking about and coming back to in my grad classes was the idea of student evaluations being factored in if merit-based pay were to take hold. While there might be some issues with “fairness” and validity, our students know us best! They see us teach more often than anyone, and while you might have a few stinkers who would be dishonest, I think that on the whole, most students would be fairly honest about feedback (especially if they knew that the teacher would not see it).
    Interesting topic of debate!

    • Becky,
      Congrats on finishing your Master’s! It’s a great feeling. One stance I take, and I see you agree, if it’s coming, whether we like it or not, how can we better prepare ourselves?

  • Adam Laughlin

    Hi all!  This is a great topic.  Please excuse me if this comes off as a rant:
    My major
    concern is how they will determine art teacher effectiveness.
     I am very proud to be a Choice Based Art teacher and have
    an amazing assessment strategy based off Project Zero’s
    “Eight Habits of Mind.”  How will I need to change if/when
    new state sanctioned assessments come out?  Will my class be
    reduced to memorization of terms?  How well students follow step-by-step
    art projects?  Or, will the state assessment look like an AP or IB
    Art class final portfolio/show (better for my TAB classroom, but where
    will we find the time/manpower)?  

    I know
    there has been a lot of discussion about how to assess art on this website, but
    let’s be frank, it is still very subjective.  No matter if you use
    rubrics, critiques, portfolios, or conferences (like me) at some point it comes
    down to someone’s opinion.  I guess the exception would be a
    “bubble” test with questions like, “What is the definition of
    shape?” or, “Frida ______ was a famous Mexican artist.”  It
    makes me uncomfortable knowing that my job, my family’s food, and home
    is subject to someone’s subjective opinion.


    Aurora Colorado

    • Hi Adam,
      Thanks for writing! Teaching for memorization of terms is an art teacher’s nightmare! I’ve been there, though a forced assessment, read more about that here:
      Our team worked really hard to create a performance based assessment that was as accurate as possible, graded using a rubric but also inter-rater reliability in order to account for the subjective nature of grading art (and I agree, it will always be there and with choice based you have an even greater challenge! ) and still assessed actual art skills and not just vocabulary. It’s not perfect, by far, but it’s something. Read more about that and how we attempted to grade it fairly here: faced with an assessment mandate (as we were) it was important to come up with a happy medium. I hope this can help other teachers see that it can be easy to collect data in a variety of ways in the art room.

  • Corinnecreswell

    Exactly what Leila is saying! Do you know that some school districts want to tie a school’s literacy rate to how “effective” the ancillary teachers are? So teaching art will then be tied to how well a school’s students do at standardized tests. If that’s not a hare-brained scheme, I don’t know what is. Teachers will have little to no motivation to work at lower-performing schools,

    If you have a fellow teacher not doing a good job, it’s your administration’s job to get them the help they need, or eventually show them the door. What other job do we have in our society that is as non-competitive as teaching? Teaching is such a good example of what can be done when people collaborate. Why would we want to pit teachers against teachers? 
    I am currently teaching K-2 art – and can’t think of a realistic way to do standardized art assessments and teacher surveys with them. I just don’t see anyway in making the current idea of merit pay/VAM/performance pay fair to teachers, much less teachers who don’t teach easily “testable” subjects.  
    Diane Ravitch is the former Secretary of Education from the Reagan years, and she’s become an vocal opponent to “education reform”. The whole movement is backed by billionaires who want non-unionized teachers at charter schools, quite honestly.

  • I think you have some valid points, but I am going to have to politely disagree with you. 

    My concern is that the “performance” part of performance based pay is not determined by the teachers but by administrators and politicians who are not in the classroom.  I have friends who have taught in performance based states and have heard stories about how goofy the requirements are.  One teacher told me you get “points” if you have a new bulletin board up each month!  My point is that “they” will have to come up with a way to measure teachers’ success and it might involve jumping through a million more hoops… think Iowa Standards Portfolio requirements times 100.  For art teachers this is even scarier because “they” sometimes struggle to quantify what we do anyway.

    The worst thing about performance-based pay is that teachers are competitors.  They stop sharing lessons, information, PLCs become a thing of the past, collaboration ceases, everything is tight lipped and individual.  And I can’t, in my heart, believe that is what is best for kids.

    Would I like to get paid for my extra hard work?  Of course!  But motivation is a tricky thing and money isn’t everything.  There are a lot of unhappy people in “corporate America” and I chose not to be one of them. 

    I thought you might like this link from TED talks about motivation:

    • Thanks for weighing in, Heather! This is tricky topic that doesn’t have one right answer. The bulletin board comment makes me chuckle. Seriously! Implementation has some serious issues, as you mentioned.
      I wonder if it really has to be teacher vs. teacher if the scales are individualized? I am always my own biggest competition with myself. If everyone does well, won’t everyone get higher pay? Certainly people in other professions in this business world collaborate every single day on projects, don’t they? Regardless of pay structures? Just throwing it out there.
      Maybe I am just too idealistic to think it can be as simple as “work hard- earn more.” It makes me so sad that teachers work so hard and aren’t getting compensation for the basic things they do every day, and it’s usually above and beyond the call of duty.

      • It is also frustrating to see teachers waltz into meetings late (if at all) and leave early every single night and collect the same paycheck as those of us who go well above the call of duty.  I’m all about shaking up the system, as you said, but I just don’t know if I have seen a performance-based program that fits the bill. If you were only competing with yourself, that would be a step in the right direction…

    • guest

      I agree about teachers competing and no longer collaborating.  My district earn the highest test scores in our state last year.  Yea us, and yea kids…but what did it really do for my district?  We didn’t get any money from the state.  If you had the highest sales in a company you would earn more money, therefore rewarding the workers.  That isn’t how it works in non-profit organizations.  If we had been in a merit pay system then in theory we should have earned more money.  Where would that money have come from?  We don’t produce a product that makes money, so this won’t work.

  • HipWaldorf

    Wow what a great topic!

    I worked in the business world for years and I agree it would be great if highly degreed professional teachers were recognized for all their hard work just as most highly degreed other professionals outside of education!  I agree with you Jessica, because I am a courageous change leader like you.

    I am not confident that unions would allow our “ideal” to happen in the way you and I would like to see because unions are involved.  Unions served their purpose when they entered our culture (just ask a teacher pre-union how they were treated and paid!) but right now we are in a period of transition with unions and the professions that are served by unions.  I am sure we will come to some resolution, but maybe not soon and certainly not in a format with which we are all happy.  I have belonged to several unions and I support them, but I do think there needs to be a “bit” more open-mindedness to policy changes on “what’s best for education” on both sides.  And I certainly feel that unions provide us a decent salary, otherwise the voters in my town would decrease our salary when they are feeling poor.

    For some people transition is difficult, but I see this kind of dialogue as progress and moving Forward.

    • HipWaldorf- Thanks for the encouragement and for referring to me as a courageous change leader – I appreciate the nod. There are so many ways to think of every system in this world, just because a system exists it doesn’t mean it’s good. Change isn’t always good, either. It’s always good to hear different perspectives and I appreciate your time to comment. 

    • The problem here is that public money is being used to pay those teachers and that places an artificial down pressure on wages. What the people behind these policies are looking for is a way to pay teachers less. I worked for a charter school with a merit pay system. The teachers that had been there and doing good things were not being rewarded with merit pay because the school doesn’t magically get more money from the state because they have good teachers. The per pupil funding is what dictates pay and if you remove the union from the equation that pay goes down. The other big problem with this is the poverty element. If I teach in a district of well educated parents that value education and have money to provide the necessities for their children and provide parental support to the educational process, my job is much different than someone who works in a depressed area and has to try to provide for their students’ basic needs in addition to trying to provide them an education. The difference in parental support and expectations is immensely different, as well.

  • Guest

    I am a teacher in Ohio and it is a MESS.  The formal law doesn’t go into effect until next year.  My district is trying to be proactive and test drive it this year.  The state has no way to support what is going on and administration doesn’t have time to do what is required of them.  We have to how growth and we MUST have multiple points of data.  In my district we MUST conduct a pre and post test in art (and all subjects).  We are also required to have a portfolio requirement.  However the state has no suggested assessment tools.  Luckily I’ve been do a growth rubric for years.  You must track and show the growth for MANY students.  I did National Board last year so this is a similar drill.   You photograph and photocopy tons of work as evidence.  It takes massive amount of time.  With National Board you are assessed by art teachers.  With pay for performance you are assessed by an administrator who knows nothing about your content.   ALso, the students math and english scores on the OAA are included in mine evaluation.  There is a student feedback component but i think that is only 10% of our total evaluation.  It is a complete mess that will cost our poor state more money.  I’ve never seen any research that says merit pay will improve test scores.  If teachers aren’t performing administrators need to do their jobs and document and fire them.  Also, as an art teacher you will make less than your peers in core subjects.  

    • I was waiting to hear from someone from Ohio! Thanks for sharing the details with us. I think it’s ironic the state has no suggested assessment tools, yet you are expected to assess in so many areas. We cover all of those areas in AOE’s Assessment in Art Education class, but to do all of them, with all of your students seems nearly impossible. 

  • Fajs327

    I am a teacher in Chicago, and I just walked the picket line for 7 days to fight this very issue. The idea of getting paid based on your hard work is a very inviting thought, because after all, we are all great teachers. Beware. This is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, it is a very decisive plan dreamed up by hedge fund managers and billionaire investors. Their metrics do not take into account , a child’s poverty level, the lack of funds available at a poor neighborhood school, or even if there are 37 children in a classroom. This idea of competition in the classroom was dreamed up to close public schools, in order to open up for profit charter schools with tax payers money. Merit pay is a very slippery slope, and is being touted as “true reform”. After living through a week of politicians spewing propaganda , and yellow journalism, I would recommend doing some serious research behind this issue. Because after all, I don’t know any teacher who , true or not, doesn’t think that they are truly exceptional.

  • Tracy Paul

    I completely agree with you. You are as sane as anyone else. You just have to factor in that the people that say it is unfair do not go the extra. Ike that would earn them the money they want. I say merit pay is a great idea and should never be linked to test score!

  • Cathy

    I personally think that performance based pay is fine and would encourage it. I work one day a week at a school teaching art and the rest of the week is filled up with subbing in different school districts. In my own experience, through practicums and observations during my educ. process as well as observations of teachers while subbing I have witnessed some pretty poor teaching…not a lot, but enough to frustrate me, especially other art teachers that I have witnessed or worked with that have full time art teaching jobs and are horrible teachers. I have learned from those “what not to do” in my own art classroom. These are teachers that basically have tenure and know that they really don’t have to be all that good to know that they will still earn their paycheck. If anything, I guess I would rather see the “performance based” aspect steer more towards whether a teacher should be kept on at a school or let go. 

    I personally think teachers are paid very well. I know that we work a lot of hours but most of us do get summers off, winter and spring breaks, etc. This is just my opinion.

  • JacqueVisscher

    I am teaching at a school that participates in the TAP system. Last year was the first year and I cannot say a single thing negative about it. It has opened my eyes to a whole new world of teaching! I could go on and on about it and the views people have about peformace based pay but with the system we use, you can only gain money, you don’t get pay taken away. If you are already doing your job the way you should you have nothing to lose.

    • Thanks for your unique perspective, Jacque! This seems to be the best model we’ve heard about so far.

  • Dcerretani

    Hi, Jessica –
    I agree, in theory, that being paid for your performance sounds like a good idea.  Realistically, it isn’t what it sounds like at first.  Here, in Florida, we started being evaluated for merit pay last year.  The merit pay doesn’t actually start until 2014 and, let’s face facts that will be completely dependent on budgets.  Since raises have been meager or nonexistent for the last few years, performance may not have much value.  How many ways can a very small pie be divided? 50% of our observation is based on observations by in-house administrators and the other 50% is determined by state DOE based on student test scores.  This is called the “value-Added Model.”  We are already being asked to jump through these hoops for year two and we still have not received our final evaluations for last year.  Classroom teachers’ 50% is determined by the test scores of the children in their classroom.  Arts, PE, Music, Media, Tech, Guidance, ELL & ESE are determined by average test scores of the entire school.  These are standardized reading, math and writing scores not tests in the subject areas.  You might ask how this is relevant to our performance.  We must include reading(non-fiction), math, and writing activities in our lessons across the curriculum (a result of “Common Core”).  They look for this during observations.  We are being asked to assist the classroom teacher in doing their jobs but no one is concerned about what we are teaching.  So there you have it!  Be careful what you wish for….
    I must agree with others who have posted that much of this is political and geared to building business for private schools.  Politicians here are touting vouchers so parents can send their children to private or religious schools of their choice.  What the poor unsuspecting parents don’t understand is that a voucher will not cover the entire tuition of a private school.  Great for wealthy parents but poor parents will end up sending their kids to under-funded public schools.  Also private companies that produce tests, gimmicks, and unnecessary materials, and, soon, private schools lobby for and make big money from all of this “reform.”
    I feel that when the economy improves there will be alot more turn over in education, in general.  And, with the baby boomers retiring we will lose many experienced highly effective teachers with few new teachers coming into the field.  Statistics tell us that many new teachers leave the field after 2-5 years.

  • Ms Novak

    Hey Jessica,

    I agree with you and YOUR version of merit based pay.  However, no one is currently listening to teachers.  I think merit based pay should be based mostly on merit – surveys, observations, relationships built with community, kids, other teachers.. etc — NOT on standardized test or other bogus data.

    The problem is how it is currently being dished out.  It doesn’t seem like anyone who is making the laws/rules have any idea how to go about it.  In Michigan we are preparing for some kind of ‘bonus’ merit pay.  They aren’t sure what it will look like yet – but we have been piloting ‘student growth assessments’. 

    I have been asked to create 3 different assessments to use 3 different times of the year with ALL my kinders and ALL 3rd graders.  I like the fact that I have had input on how my assessments will work – the trick is finding something that students grow a year’s worth in during the year that you can actually document.  I feel that I could tell you who has improved – but it might not be on color mixing or 2 point perspective – instead it might be that they ask for help instead of ripping up their paper, or coloring IN their pictures instead of over, or using more colors than just orange.  There isn’t anything that I teach ALL year – we do a unit on drawing, ceramics, printmaking. 

    The general ed teachers are doing reading scores.  This is something they work on ALL year.  Their assessments are also done for them – as they use a National Standardized test like ITBS, and two other reading assessments already required by our District.

    This situation is frustrating because what they want me to show and how to show it is not a true reflection of my students or my teaching – not to mention it is easy to manipulate for a good outcome.  I have tried to talk with administration about it and true to form – they have no idea what to do with us (art, music).  So I have been asked to jump through the hoops.  I will be doing 3 assessments on 200 kids – 3 times this year.  This equals 1,800 assessments.  General Ed teachers have only about 27 kids to do this for = 81 assessments (which are done mostly for them).

    So – as much as I agree with YOUR idea — reality is that how it is being implemented is ridiculous and often pulls away from actual teaching.

    • Well said, Amanda! I think you summarized it well, and It’s interesting to hear what is being asked of other teachers in other states. It sounds like you are making the best of what you have. Everything has to be so complicated, doesn’t it! :)

  • Gordon

    Sounds great until you find out that your performance as the art teacher is linked with student math scores.  Because that makes total sense.
    That’s what is happening here in Ohio.

  • Sara

    I thought I would throw this out there. Just some food for thought.

  • not impressed…

    If performance pay ever comes around my area…. It’ll be only high pay for the teachers who teach to the test. The Arts will be the lowest paid I’m afraid with the way society views our lack of importance… We are just one of those “fun” classes where everyone should get an easy “A”!