Article published in The Roanoke (VA) Times
Pay employees extra if they do their job exceptionally well. Pay for performance.
Merit pay is another name for a practice that is standard in many businesses, as well as universities and private schools. Unfortunately, such logical incentives have been controversial and rare in public education, mainly because teacher unions have demanded pay scales pegged to years served — a uniform standard that helps them maintain their control.
Finally, after decades of contention, merit pay is gaining support among education policymakers who buy into reform based on demonstrated student achievement.
The latest sign was the agreement of U.S. House and Senate appropriations conferees on a fiscal year 2006 pilot project that will make $100 million in federal aid available to states and school districts that find ways to financially reward teachers and principals who raise student achievement.
If the money arrives from Washington, many school systems no doubt will welcome it. However, many localities are ahead of the feds in rebelling against systems that pay excellent, mediocre and incompetent teachers the same.
Denver is the shining hope right now because the main teacher union signed on to a merit plan known as Pro-Comp — provided that the city’s voters sweetened the pot by consenting to a $25 million tax hike earmarked for teacher pay. They did so Nov. 1, by a 58 percent majority.
Denver’s education and civic leaders do deserve praise for at least crafting an alternative pay system that makes it possible for teachers to make more money by taking on tough assignments and helping students learn beyond minimal expectations. That’s far better than simply rewarding years worked and education courses endured.
But the Mile-High City’s leaders fell short of a bold break with the status quo. As Independence Institute analyst Ben DeGrow has noted, “they created a system of incentives that places too much emphasis on areas that don’t necessarily help students achieve more.”
For instance, if a teacher helps her students do better than expected on the state’s tests, she takes home an extra $999. That’s a fairly modest reward for making measurable differences in young lives.
By contrast, Pro-Comp gives raises of almost $3,000 to teachers who win certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The NBPTS gives points to candidates who videotape themselves teaching and who embrace learner-centered methods taught in most schools of education; however, it does not take into account the teacher’s impact on students’ test scores. Several studies have shown national certification makes little or no difference in student achievement.
Why should teachers who master a process steeped in teaching theory receive a raise three times higher than teachers who actually help their students learn more?
Elsewhere, value-added assessment (VAA), a statistical technique for showing the difference a teacher makes (or doesn’t) year to year in elevating student achievement, is showing promise as a way to implement merit pay.
In Chattanooga, the school system uses VAA and other criteria to identify the most effective teachers whom it then recruits to work in the lowest-performing inner-city schools. Teachers who agree to work in those schools and then achieve value-added gains by their students win $5,000 annual bonuses. Early data indicate this approach is helping narrow the achievement gap in needy schools.
Perhaps the most promising innovation in the country, and the most widespread (2,000 teachers in 10 states) in application, is the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) pioneered by the Milken Family Foundation. TAP is a comprehensive approach to attract more talented people into teaching and to keep them there.
TAP evaluates teachers by multiple measures as they progress up a ladder of opportunities — career, mentor, master teacher. But value-added analysis of student gains is the glue that holds the system together. Teachers are held accountable for meeting the TAP standards for skills and knowledge and rewarded for the value-added growth of their students.
“In Arizona and South Carolina,” U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings recently noted, “student achievement in TAP schools outpaced achievement in similar schools two-thirds of the time. The message is clear: When we treat teachers better, students perform better.”
As the idea of pay for performance catches on, school policymakers will have to decide which plans have actual merit and which are cosmetic.
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