Merit pay for Chicago teachers: one program ending, another in the works

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This month, Chicago Public Schools will find out whether the district has been selected for a federal grant to launch a new initiative on merit pay that would radically restructure teacher compensation at participating schools.

The new initiative would replace Chicago TAP, the local version of the national Teacher Advancement Program, which will end in CPS when federal funding runs out in spring 2011. In 2006, CPS won a $27.5 million federal grant to launch TAP in about 40 pilot schools. (The new grant would have to be used for a different group of schools.)

Sheryl Frost Leo, project manager in the district’s Office of Human Capital, says it is too soon to release details of the district’s application for the new federal grant. But rather than offer teachers a bonus on top of their current salary (as determined by the union contract), the grant would change salary structures and offer pay based on teacher performance.

Although the new grant would only fund a pilot program, the broader intention is “to overhaul systems [and] jump-start something that would be sustainable districtwide,” Frost Leo says.

The effort could face stiff union opposition. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis says merit pay programs can narrow curricula by encouraging teachers to focus on testing. “Standardized test scores tell us way more about the child’s ZIP code than about what that child has learned,” she says.

Once TAP ends, schools won’t get to keep the extra resources it provided, says Sheri Frost Leo of the district’s Office of Human Capital. But schools will get some extra help from CPS to “think about what they’ve learned from the model and apply the TAP structures to their school organizations,” Frost Leo says.

TAP provides extra professional development; bonuses based on teaching quality and student test scores; and salary boosts for lead and mentor teachers, who coach, observe and evaluate other teachers.  (The program has cost $18.3 million in its first three years, a tab that could increase as the program winds down and costs shift to CPS.
Who Pays for TAP

Here in Chicago, the jury is still out on TAP’s impact. A Mathematica study released this spring showed that the program did not have a significant effect on teacher retention or student achievement. And a key component of the district’s plan—using value-added student test scores to help determine teacher bonuses at the classroom level—has run into technical snafus that the district is still trying to iron out.

But the study only covers the first year and a half of TAP—not enough time, supporters say, to show significant results. And internal CPS surveys show most teachers say the program improved their school’s climate and teaching practice.

Sarah Mayeda, who manages the Chicago Public Education Fund’s investment in the TAP program, notes the short time frame of the Mathematica study.

“Tests are done in March. Schools start implementing in the fall, but the first semester is a practice semester for them,” she says. The study doesn’t account for differences between schools, she says, including how well the school implemented the program and the level of ‘buy-in’ among teachers.

School districts in more than a dozen states have implemented TAP, which incorporates many of the components that research recommends to improve teaching: multiple career paths for teachers, intensive professional development, one-on-one mentoring and frequent observations of classroom instruction. According to national data from the organization that runs TAP, schools that participate are more likely to raise student achievement than similar non-participating schools that do not use the program.

Mayeda says CPS has also learned more about the factors that are needed for a program like TAP to succeed: lots of training on teacher evaluation, strong teacher buy-in, and positive relationships between lead and mentor teachers and the staff they evaluate.

The lessons will be critical in the near future, as performance pay and teacher evaluation take center stage in CPS. A new state law requires the district to implement performance-based teacher evaluations in 300 schools by fall 2012, and in all schools by fall 2013.

For its part, the CTU is gathering research and looking for an evaluation framework that it could agree to. “It has to be a collaborative process, and it has to be research based,” Lewis says.
Lewis praises some of TAP’s components, such as including professional development as part of the school day; providing additional pay and increased responsibilities for expert teachers; and detailed classroom observations.

“Teachers do see those observations and standards as being valid and helpful,” Lewis says.

This spring, teachers at Lawrence Elementary gathered in a cluster meeting—a hallmark of TAP in which teachers at the same grade level or in the same subject area discuss teaching strategies. Lead teacher April Elem-Gwin led the group in an exercise to help struggling students: Have students circle key words and phrases in a question they have to answer, since many low-achieving students have trouble understanding questions, Elem-Gwin points out.

TAP schools select about one of every eight classroom teachers to work as mentors. They get $7,000 extra in pay per year for extra responsibilities that include observing and coaching other teachers, “field testing” new strategies with their own students to find out what does and doesn’t work, and sharing those strategies at cluster meetings.

In addition to mentors, each school also has about half as many lead teachers, like Elem-Gwin, who serve as full-time coaches and do not have classes of their own. They receive $15,000 extra a year.

In the beginning, Elem-Gwin says, some of her colleagues were skeptical of her role as an observer. According to the district’s fall 2008 internal evaluation, some lead and mentor teachers reported that their new roles led to tension with the teachers they were responsible for evaluating.

Now, however, Elem-Gwin says she’s seen as an extra hand instead of a threat. She works with students (individually and in small groups), team teaches, and sometimes takes over a class.

Vivian Billups, who was principal of Lawrence Elementary last spring, was pleased with the support TAP provided. But not all schools have found TAP useful. Telpochcalli Elementary Principal Tamara Witzl says the program didn’t mesh well with her school. For instance, she says, she was told to stop letting ordinary classroom teachers run professional development sessions. (Five TAP schools have left or been dropped from the program. Two more, Henson and Pickard, were slated to start the program this fall but opted out.)

The program operates “under the false assumption that teachers don’t already have capacity” or knowledge to share with others, Witzl says.

Another TAP school, Deneen, is undergoing the turnaround process. Many of Deneen’s former teachers will be gone, but the school is re-entering TAP this fall.
 
“You need different strategies for different kinds of schools,” says Frost Leo. “We haven’t always made the right decisions in terms of school selection.”

Outside evaluators have scored schools on how well they implemented the program, Frost Leo says. CPS plans an analysis to determine whether there is any correlation between how well schools implemented TAP and how much academic progress their students made.

“We’re hoping to find that if there are certain key levers [a school is] really good at, that is more likely to lead to growth,” she says.

Other results from internal evaluations, including teacher surveys:

  • 80 percent of classroom teachers say TAP is “helping them to be better teachers.”
  • 65 percent say TAP is improving their schools’ climate. 
  • 84 percent say they trust their colleagues to evaluate them fairly and accurately. 
  • 20 percent of all teachers (including lead and mentor teachers) say the incentive of extra pay has motivated them to work harder. 
  • 12 percent say performance-based compensation has caused them to be “more stressed.” 

BONUSES AT TAP SCHOOLS

 POSITION  MAX. PAYOUT, YEAR 1  MAX. PAYOUT, YEAR 2+
 AVG. PAYOUT, 2008-09
 Teachers  $2,045  $6,320  $2,653
 Principals  $5,000  $5,000  $2,411
 Asst. Principals  $4,000  $4,000  $2,475
 Other Staff  $500  $1,000  $477
Note: The average bonuses in this table include only those schools in their second year of TAP.

Sources: Sheri Frost Leo, Chicago Public Schools; Mathematica PolicyResearch study, “An Evaluation of the Teacher Advancement Program inChicago: Year Two Impact Report,” May 2010.

Intern Rachel Schneider contributed to this report.