Merit pay has kinks

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When Chicago Public Schools rolled out its performance-based pay plan for teachers, the district tapped into a national trend in school improvement strategy.

More and more urban districts are embracing the idea of extra pay for teachers who work in hard-to-staff schools and who produce bottom line results for students. State or local pay-for-performance initiatives are underway in 25 states and other areas are considering them. Utah approved incentive pay legislation this spring, and plans to roll it out in the fall.

Yet performance pay, which was first introduced in 1994 by the Douglas County School District in Colorado, has kinks that need to be worked out, and the jury is out on whether the strategy is effective.

Houston drew criticism last year when it moved from a teacher bonus plan based on school rankings to one that is based on student performance. Some exemplary teachers there received nothing.

Florida is still trying to get it right.  Two years ago, it created a program where only teachers ranked in the top 25 percent in their districts were rewarded. After teachers protested, state education officials scrapped the program and replaced it with a merit pay system that is more inclusive and allows teachers to earn bonuses in teams.

In Denver, teachers designed the district’s incentive pay program. However, teacher Margaret Bobb says she is “not a 100 percent cheerleader.” While she likes how the program promotes staff collaboration, she notes that some of the financial incentives are rather meager, with only $1,000 or so for teachers in tough schools, for instance. “Not enough money to motivate people,” she says.

When Chicago announced a year ago that it had received a $27.5 million federal grant to develop a teacher incentive pay plan, more than 100 schools vied to be selected. The Chicago Teachers Union, however, was wary.

“We don’t support merit pay,” CTU President Marilyn Stewart stated at the time. “It pits teacher against teacher.”

Since then, the union has reconsidered. The extra professional development for teachers was always appealing, say union officials. But now that the program is up and running, it “looks promising,” says Mary Hanson, who represents CTU on a joint union/district council for the performance pay program.

For one, teachers are protected from overly subjective assessments, Hanson notes. Evaluations make use of standards-based rubrics and other tools that promote objectivity.  Also, teachers are observed by two members of the school leadership team and overall school performance is factored into the bonus equation.

Nevertheless, the debate on whether pay-for-performance works is ongoing.

“There is a lot of talk about alternative compensation,” says Julia Koppich, a member of the TIF technical assistance team. “But there isn’t much evidence yet.

A five-year study on Chicago’s program is currently underway by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.  An interim report of the program’s first year is expected to be released in December.