It's been called the last frontier of school reform: performance pay for teachers.
Teachers groups have opposed it as vigorously as students protesting a pop quiz. Even citizen support for the idea has been tepid.
But here in Cincinnati, a new effort is under way that could become the standard-bearer for the biggest change in how teachers are paid in 80 years. This fall, the city passed a measure that will make it the first in the US to pay teachers based on their performance. It will reward good teachers with higher salaries, accelerate promising ones up the pay scale with private-sector speed, and squeeze out those who don't meet expectations.
What gives the city's plan a good chance of success, supporters say, is that it was largely devised by teachers themselves. In an effort to head off resistance,
the district allowed teachers to play a significant role in designing the new system. The result could become a model for school districts across the country.
"The Cincinnati plan is the most dramatic and fundamental change-oriented local effort on teacher compensation we've seen," says Allan Odden, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin and an expert on teacher pay. "It represents the first major change in how you are going to pay teachers since we invented the single-salary schedule in 1921."
In some ways, teacher performance pay is a natural fit for the Queen City, with its conservative, Midwestern values and business-oriented mind-set.
Nationwide, however, performance pay is still highly controversial. The National Education Association struck down a measure endorsing it at its summer conference. And in Philadelphia, performance pay was a major point of contention in negotiations over a new teacher contract, which nearly led to a citywide teacher strike this fall.
But as the school-reform movement continues to gain momentum, many districts are feeling pressure to hold teachers - as well as students - accountable for their performance.
In Cincinnati, this pressure was especially strong, since a number of other reforms had already been enacted. As administrators began introducing higher standards and increased testing for students, they came to realize they had "a [teacher] compensation system that bears absolutely no relationship to the new goals of the organization," says Steven Adamowski, Cincinnati schools superintendent.
Under the old, seniority-based pay scale, teachers in Cincinnati could have an evaluation after their first year, another after the third year, and not have another formal one for the rest of their careers.
"That's unconscionable," says Rick Beck, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. "We realized we're either going to lead reform or we're going to be led by reform."
A commission, two-thirds of which were teachers, hammered out a plan. The new evaluation system is built around 16 categories, in which a teacher will be rated as distinguished, proficient, basic, or unsatisfactory. The score will place a teacher in one of the following pay grades: accomplished, advanced, career, novice, and apprentice. New teachers must pass the apprentice level by Year 2 and the novice level by Year 5, or their contracts will not be renewed.
But assurances for teachers are also built into the plan, the result of their close involvement. In response to concerns about how to keep evaluations objective, for example, peer reviews were added.
Moreover, the plan can be scrapped in two years on a 70 percent nay vote by teachers. And the administration can bail out at that time if they find the program has degenerated into a salary-inflation tool.
Even with these caveats, not all teachers have been enthusiastic supporters of the plan. Opposition has ranged from simple mistrust of the administration to a more broad-based antipathy to any management-sponsored compensation system.
"People are afraid to be evaluated," says Robert Sturdevant, sitting in a quiet corner of the Jacobs Center Middle School library. He is a social-studies teacher and one of the teacher representatives on the committee. "It's almost like the end of the Soviet Union. It's a fundamental change in the way teachers perceive their role and how they are paid."
But many teachers also want to bring a greater level of respect to the profession, says Mr. Beck. He says teachers recognize that if they want to be viewed on par with lawyers and doctors, they need to set standards as those professions do.
Some observers have suggested Cincinnati could actually become a victim of its own success. If substandard teachers are weeded out, it could create vacancies at a time when school districts around the country are already experiencing teacher shortages.
But Beck and others argue that the new system will attract more teachers to the district. Under the old system, a teacher could reach the top salary only after 27 years.
"If you're a hotshot teacher just coming in, in four or five years you can be at the highest level of salary," says Beck. "If you have three or four districts to pick from ... you're going to pick the place where you can advance quickly."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society