Making sense of performance pay : sensemaking and sensegiving in teachers' implementation of compensation reform

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Herbert, Karen Shellberg

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Teacher compensation reforms have been on the rise in recent years, yet research has yet to fully demonstrate how teachers interpret these policies and how they may influence their instructional practices and professional decisions. This qualitative study of a performance pay program in an urban district in Texas drew on cognitive approaches to policy implementation and theories of sensemaking to examine and explicate these issues. Teachers’ experiences in two schools were examined through interviews, focus groups, and document analysis. The experiences of school principals and district policymakers acting as sensegivers to teachers about the program’s goals, purposes, and theory of action were also examined. District policymakers’ understandings of the program varied, and were informed by their positions in the system and their own interests in the program. These differences resulted in a complex program with an array of objectives for teachers to implement in schools and classrooms, as well as varying expectations for teachers’ work, which were not always understood by teachers. With few clear and consistent messages from policymakers, teachers and principals interpreted the program according to their own ideas about important outcomes, and then shaped it to fit their situations. Although accepting of the program, teachers and principals were not always able to focus on it in ways expected by policymakers given other demands on them, particularly those emanating from the accountability system. Some evidence of goal distortion in terms of teachers’ attention to student assignments and mobility was also found. These findings hold implications for cognitive theories of policy implementation, suggesting that teachers’ responses to policies are influenced by the amount of attention they are able to give them, as well as direct sensegiving about policy goals and expectations on the part of policymakers. The findings also suggest that performance pay programs can be expected to be adapted, co-opted, and selectively attended to in order to fit within the contexts in which they are implemented. Thus, policymakers should consider other demands in the policy environment that may compete with performance incentives, as well as the organizational contexts of schools in which they will be implemented.



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