States venture into teacher performance pay

 

The controversial idea of paying teachers based not on how long they've been teaching but on how much their students learn got a boost when a key congressman recently proposed adding pay-for-performance money for teachers in high-poverty schools to the next version of the federal No Child Left Behind education law.

Proponents say merit pay would give teachers incentives to raise the quality of students' work and could help the NCLB program, which requires schools to show yearly improvement on standardized tests or face penalties. Proposed last month by U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, the merit plan has support from Republicans and U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

But although some states already pay teachers for performance, the national teachers unions have unleashed a barrage of opposition to Miller's plan. Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, called it a "deal breaker" that could cost Miller the unions' support of that version of NCLB revisions. Unions and other teacher support organizations have contended that merit pay relies too much on tests that may not paint an accurate picture of how well someone teaches.

"There is absolutely a fallacy that is perpetuated about the sanctity of these tests," said Barnett Berry, president of the Center for Teaching Quality Inc., a nonprofit group that supports developing teacher leadership. "We would not pay a doctor solely on the basis of his or her mortality rates, would we? But we're thinking of paying a teacher more or less based on test scores independent of other data sources?"

Despite the opposition, eight states - Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas - already have statewide performance-pay plans, and several school districts, notably Denver and Houston, have their own programs. The federal government also has been encouraging merit pay; last year the U.S. Department of Education distributed $99 million in grants to help a handful of districts and schools set up programs.

Some of the state plans have navigated rocky paths. Last year, Florida created Special Teachers Are Rewarded (STAR), a $147.5 million program mandatory for all school districts to give bonuses to the top 25 percent of teachers based on evaluations and student test results. Teachers opposed the cap, which they said pushed teachers to compete, not collaborate.

In March, the state scrapped STAR and enacted the Merit Awards Program (MAP), which allows teachers to earn bonuses in teams and has no cap on how many teachers can benefit. But MAP, which also relies largely on test results, isn't proving to be much more popular. Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Educators Association, the state union, estimates that only about a quarter of districts will choose to implement the program this school year.

Texas has the country's largest program ; by the 2008-09 school year, the state plans to spend at least $320 million on teachers' merit pay. Matthew Springer, president of the National Center on Performance Incentives, which researches merit-pay programs, said Texas has faced less opposition than Florida has because schools were given more freedom on how they set up their programs. Out of more than 1,100 low-income schools that qualified for a state program, only about 60 chose not to participate last year.

But the state teachers union there opposes the program, again because of its heavy reliance on test scores. The union helped convince the Texas House to defy its Republican leadership and vote in March to scrap money for merit pay in favor of an $800 raise for every teacher. That plan failed in the state Senate, however, and merit-pay money eventually was restored.

Some programs, such as Minnesota's , use other measures of student progress along with test scores. Held up as a model program, the Minnesota system was proposed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2005 after much consultation with the teachers union.

Randi Kirchner, the professional-pay-system coordinator for the union, Minnesota Education, prefers the term "professional pay" over "merit pay" when describing the program; the emphasis, she said, is not on standardized test scores - though they're still one factor - but on professional development.

"What you call it is less important than what it looks like, and what it looks like in Minnesota is jointly designed, jointly negotiated, recognizing teachers as equal partners in the educational policy of the school, and aligning the whole system around improving teaching and learning," Kirchner said.

Besides test scores, Minnesota's system uses teacher evaluations, and other indicators of student performance, such as teacher-designed tests or portfolios - collections of students' work. There is no cap on those who can earn incentives, and districts and local unions must agree on a plan to participate. This year, about 40 of more than 340 districts are participating, but more than 130 districts have indicated they plan to apply for the program by the next school year.

It's still a question how far Miller's proposal will advance at the federal level. Springer says there isn't enough evidence yet to determine whether pay for performance works. "We don't have much research to tell what programs are effective," he said.

But the idea likely will continue to expand at the state level. In August, Oklahoma House Speaker Lance Cargill (R) pledged to introduce a pay-for-performance system in the next legislative session and announced five hearings this summer to study the issue. Kirchner spoke about Minnesota's plan at one of the hearings.

"We need bold reforms to start rewarding teachers for success in the classroom, so that our best and hardest-working teachers are paid for their achievements," Cargill said. "By rewarding teachers based on their performance, we're raising the bar for education all across the state."

 
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