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Kentucky Education Commissioner Wants To Link Teacher Pay To Performance

In his monthly report to the Kentucky Board of Education Wednesday, Commissioner of Education Wayne Lewis gave an impassioned argument that overall school funding would not solve all the problems schools face. Instead, Lewis called for “additional strategic funding” to address inequities in education. Among that targeted funding, Lewis suggested that performance-based pay for teachers could be an effective strategy for improving Kentucky schools.

“If we’re honest about it, there is no incentive currently to be a great teacher,” Lewis told the Board of Education.

Lewis argued better incentives for teachers would help teacher retention overall, and specifically attract more experienced educators to serve in high need schools. Lewis said currently, the schools with the greatest need are frequently heavily staffed by first year teachers.

“Increasing the funding in the line item to public education does not fix that. That’s a structural and policy flaw in our system,” Lewis said.

Lewis called for more tools to hold educators at all levels accountable for student achievement, not just superintendents.

In a press conference following his report, Lewis responded to questions about whether those comments meant he would support performance-based pay or bonuses for teachers or principals.

“I think all of those things should be on the table,” he said. “The idea that we would incentivize people based on performance, if we do it in every other sector, why wouldn’t we consider it in education?”

Lewis said that he would like to see Kentucky implement a form of performance-based incentives by offering districts more flexibility to design their own methods for rewarding effective teachers.

“I wouldn’t envision the state coming up with a plan that we would impose on districts, but I do think there are some barriers to districts being more flexible in that space that we could remove,” he said.

The Kentucky Department of Education has asked the legislature to consider policies that give districts more flexibility to meet state accountability standards on its last legislative session priorities agenda, and will again this coming session, Lewis said.

“Just like most professions, we have some great teachers, we have some teachers that frankly should not be teaching, and most of our teachers lie in between those two,” Lewis told the board. “We have to find a way to create incentives for people to want to be better.”

What Merit-Based Pay For Teachers Looks Like In Other States

Performance-based pay enacted in other states has offered teachers bonuses, or given districts flexibility to adjust teachers’ pay, based on measurements of teacher effectiveness. Those metrics have often included a teacher’s measured impact on their students’ performance, or especially growth, on statewide standardized tests.

In 2011, Florida passed merit-based pay that tied teachers’ salaries to their students’ test performance and eliminated pay schedules based on teachers’ years of experience. In North Carolina, teachers in certain key subject areas, like third grade reading, can qualify for bonuses based on a statistical measurement of their individual impact on their students’ growth in state standardized test scores. And in Wisconsin, the state enacted collective bargaining reforms in 2011 that allowed districts to offer more flexibility in how they paid teachers; some districts based pay on a teachers’ value-added to student test performance.

Lewis did not describe any specific model for offering performance-based incentives for Kentucky teachers.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.
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