Merit-pay legislation would scrap ‘steps, lanes’

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As Arnold Weber sees it, the financial and administrative reforms state lawmakers enacted last year for the Chicago public schools didn’t go far enough.

Weber, president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago and a key player in last year’s debate, is pushing legislation that would force Chicago teachers to accept a merit-pay program in their next contract. Pay raises currently based on seniority and college credits would give way to raises based on student test scores, acquisition of specific skills, or extra work, such as involvement in curriculum development, school management and community outreach programs.

“The administration put in by Mayor Daley has gone a long way in exploiting flexibility,” says Weber, a labor economist and former president of Northwestern University. “But if you look at the educational scene, legislators did not give attention to what is arguably the most important element of school performance: the performance of the teachers.”

Merit pay, says Weber, would give “people cues to encourage different behavior. We now treat the good teachers the same way we treat the teacher who is a lackluster performer and marginal.”

Most private businesses and universities already operate on a form of performance-based pay, says Weber. If the Republican-controlled General Assembly agrees, about $13 million in so-called step and lane salary increases would be redirected to teachers who meet goals established by the School Reform Board and Chicago Teachers Union through collective bargaining.

By 1999, Chicago would join a handful of cities and states around the nation that have experimented with merit pay for teachers—with mixed results.

Like their counterparts in other cities, the CTU argues that such a program would stifle reform by pitting teachers against each other in search of a more lucrative paycheck. Teachers—and some school reform groups—say merit pay runs counter to programs already in place to encourage student achievement.

“We have plenty of schools in remediation, but it’s the entire school that has to work together to make changes that improve performance,” says Joann Podkul, a Bowen High School social studies teacher who has been active in Teachers for Chicago and the CTU’s Quest Center. “Merit pay creates a star system that ultimately is divisive and destroys collegiality.”

“The research we’ve seen suggests most merit-pay plans fail because it is so difficult to quantify what makes a good teacher,” says Joan Jeter Slay, associate director of the reform group Designs for Change, which often has been at odds with the CTU. “Just because test scores don’t go up in a given year doesn’t mean the teachers are doing a bad job.”

“I’m sure politically this is a good thing, but they need to realize there are a lot of variables that go into classroom teaching, and they aren’t always quantifiable,” says Karen Morris, principal at Saucedo Scholastic Academy. “If you only measure a teacher based on test scores, for instance, that’s unfair to the teacher because a kid has a bad day sometimes.”

Mayor Daley and Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas oppose the merit-pay bill because it’s for Chicago only; they fear city schools would find it more difficult to recruit teachers, who would be guaranteed pay raises in other school districts. Unfortunately for Daley and Vallas, the three-page proposal was attached to a package of legislation they requested—a return to two-year terms for local school council members and city eligibility for alternative schools funding from the state, among other items.

Weber shrugs off suggestions that a Chicago-only plan would put the city at a competitive disadvantage. “You want to attract people who are energetic, who want to take risks and who want to be considered based on their original performance,” he says.

IEA steps in

The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Dan Cronin (R-Elmhurst) and Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw (R-Naperville), moved swiftly to passage stage in both the Senate and House earlier this year. But legislative leaders put on the brakes after the Illinois Education Association announced its opposition. The IEA, which represents teachers in most suburban and downstate school districts, fears merit pay eventually would be extended to all Illinois schools.

The IEA enjoys considerable influence among downstate Republicans. But as the debate over last year’s school reform package showed, the GOP doesn’t always heed the union’s advice.

Under the merit-pay bill, the School Reform Board and the CTU would be required to agree on a program by Sept. 1, 1999. The plan then would have to win approval from the state superintendent of education. If the two Chicago parties failed to develop a plan, the General Assembly could force them to accept one crafted by lawmakers.

Though the bill is weighted toward merit pay for individual teachers, Weber prefers a plan that rewards entire schools for improving student performance, which he says the bill allows. Indeed, as president of Northwestern University, Weber joined several dozen corporate executives in endorsing a report that called for group bonuses instead of individual merit pay. “The competitive nature of most merit pay systems works against collegiality and teamwork among the faculty, two characteristics of effective schools,” states the report by the Committee for Economic Development, a New York-based research and policy organization.

Group bonuses typically are pegged to improvement in areas that can be measured, e.g. dropout rates, attendance, test scores, the number of students taking advanced courses and so on.

“When you have a group system, the evidence shows the members of the group tend to police each other,” says Weber. “If someone is working really hard on a new curriculum plan, tutoring kids after school or getting into new technology, and somebody else is just putting in time, they are going to have to answer to their colleagues.”

While the existing CTU contract calls for discussion of peer review programs and salary bonuses, merit pay proponents say there is no incentive for the board and union to agree on a plan as long as the “step and lane” system of pay raises remains in effect.

In other states that have experimented with merit pay, the programs often end up being diluted in response to widespread opposition from teacher unions.

Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, a Republican running for president, made merit pay for teachers one of the top priorities of his administration. But a 1991 state audit conducted after he left office revealed that reaching the first level of Tennessee’s “career ladder” program was so easy that 95 percent of eligible teachers made it.

Tennessee’s program has a legal mandate to award bonuses only for “outstanding performance.” But the standards for educators to qualify for the Career Level 1 pay supplement—the bottom step on a three-step ladder—have been so diluted that they are identical to those for obtaining a basic teaching license, the audit stated.

The success of incentive programs often depends on past relationships between teachers and administrators, says Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. For example, she notes that in Douglas County, Colo. (which Illinois legislators hold up as a model), “there is a good relationship between labor and management that . . . has smoothed over a number of concerns teachers had about the program. Their program says, if you get a less than satisfactory evaluation, you don’t get any raise the next year. That to me is real merit pay.”

However, several merit-pay plans in other states have foundered because the programs haven’t been adequately funded by state lawmakers. The Chicago plan differs from most in that the money for merit pay would come out of a local pot now used to fund raises based on seniority and college credits.

Weber says he has been surprised by the intensity of the opposition to merit pay in Chicago, especially since the CTU barely put up a fight against last year’s reform package.

“The union accepted limitation of one of its most basic rights last year, the right to strike,” says Weber. “But when you talk about merit pay, you get this vehement reaction.

“Sure there used to be abuses because administrators would dole out raises to whomever they pleased,” he says. “Then we established civil service and union contracts, but after a while the system became ossified. We need to change the system to make sure children are getting what they should out of the classroom.”