Change pay, change teaching?
One thing holding the teaching profession back is its vastly outdated pay system, say proponents of new compensation plans.
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Voters and policymakers, meanwhile, want to make sure that performance pay is tied to student achievement. And test scores are often the most neutral – albeit imperfect – measure.Skip to next paragraph
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Although Denver has tried to create a mix of incentives to keep people happy, everyone still agrees the system is far from perfect.
Doug Moehle, who teaches sixth- and 10th-grade social studies at Bruce Randolph, is one of the last teachers in the school not to enroll in ProComp. (New teachers in Denver automatically participate, but veteran teachers still have a choice.) The criteria aren't there to make evaluations fair, he argues. Denver, like most districts, tries to use "value-added" models when looking at test scores – looking at improvement in scores rather than overall performance. But Mr. Moehle still sees lots of ways that such systems can fall short.
"Test scores are the worst possible way to judge teachers," he says.
Still, Moehle is considering joining ProComp this year if he decides it's financially in his interest.
Denver recently went through its first major overhaul of ProComp, and the resulting changes led to a major battle with the union (which was still included in the process, but not as much as before). Among other things, the district decided to give more of the money to teachers just starting out, in an effort to retain them and avoid turnover. It also shifted more money to group incentives and increased the size of many bonuses.
"The larger the incentive, the greater the attractive power it has," says Jupp, the academic policy adviser, explaining some of the reasoning. "And we learned that when [raising] student performance is so difficult to do, lowering the stakes for individual incentives and raising the stakes for whole-faculty incentives makes sense."
Other districts have also adjusted after discovering unintended consequences. In Hillsborough County, Fla., the district instituted a performance-pay system in the fall of 2007, under a state directive with many limits on how the program could be structured.
In the first round, only 3 percent of the $2,100 bonuses went to teachers in high-poverty schools, despite sophisticated formulas to try to avoid such inequities, according to an analysis by the St. Petersburg Times. This year, separate award categories were created for those schools.
It's "a big improvement ... [but] I view myself as the teller of the cautionary tale," says Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.
It's hard to know, meanwhile, how the economic crisis will affect the momentum of these pay systems. Denver is still committed, but in Utah, the Legislature might trim some of the $20 million designated for teacher bonuses this year. Florida lawmakers tried to cut back the state's merit-pay program for teachers, but the governor vetoed the reductions. And in Minnesota, the governor has said he wants to expand the touted Q Comp program, but lawmakers are balking at an increase without more data showing that it's improving student achievement.
The problem is that until recently, these pay changes have rarely been paired with strong research evaluations, though several are now in the pipeline. A few studies have shown a positive effect between teacher incentives and student achievement, but it can be difficult to ensure that other variables weren't in play.
"We really don't know what the impact of a teacher pay-for-performance program is going to be on student achievement, teacher behavior, teacher attitudes," says Mr. Springer of the National Center on Performance Incentives. Research does show some factors that seem to work better, he adds. "You have to have a broad set of stakeholders involved in the decisionmaking ... [and] you have to make sure there's a funding stream for a long period of time."
• Part 2 will appear next week.
Pioneering salary plans
Most districts experimenting with new pay structures for teachers have opted for basing rewards on a wide variety of factors. Here are some of the most common:
•Hard-to-serve schools: Schools with a high level of low-income or low-achieving students often have difficulty attracting and keeping teachers, so some districts offer better salaries at these schools as an incentive.
•Hard-to-staff positions: Some districts also offer better salaries in subject areas that have a teacher shortage, such as math and science.
•Additional responsibilities: In some schools, experienced teachers are rewarded for mentoring new teachers or becoming "master teachers" who help improve instruction beyond their own classrooms.
•Key skills: Instead of automatically giving extra pay for advanced degrees, some districts are more selective and reward knowledge and skills that are related to district goals, such as certification in bilingual education.
•Performance: "Performance pay" or "merit pay" are often used as umbrella terms for all the factors above. But more narrowly, they also can refer to salaries or bonuses tied specifically to teachers producing strong gains in student achievement, based on standardized tests or some other measure that's deemed objective.