For better schools, look to the Big Apple

New York's merit-pay plan could bring more teachers to poor schools.

Paying teachers based in part on performance is an idea whose time has come. But it hasn't gained much traction, especially among teachers. Only a few large school districts use this approach.

But last month, New York City – the nation's largest district – signed on. If the plan is approved by the state, the city's teachers will receive substantial financial incentives for improved student performance.

The plan creatively marries paying good teachers more and providing incentives to take jobs in understaffed, low-performing schools where the potential for improvement and the need are greatest. This is a reasonable model that could serve as a blueprint for other districts around the country.

Teachers in New York, and in nearly every other school district in the United States, currently earn added compensation based on years of experience and college credits. Because salaries within a district are the same regardless of which school the teacher is assigned to, there is little incentive for teachers to work in high-poverty schools.

Critics say the system should instead reward individual teachers whose students make measurable achievement gains. They argue that will attract and retain able teachers to the low-performing, hardest-to-staff schools.

Those who support the conventional teacher pay structure – and unions have been among its most ardent supporters – say doing what the critics advocate would be unfair and unmanageable.

New York City's plan addresses the concerns of both sides: It creates performance-based incentives but bases these on school, rather than individual teacher gains.

Schools that improve performance, based largely on test scores, will receive a pot of money equal to $3,000 for every teacher and other school educator (counselors, classroom aides, etc.) represented by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the New York City affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Each participating school must establish a compensation committee composed of two teachers elected by their colleagues, the principal, and another person designated by the principal. This four-person committee will determine how to divide up the money. The only prohibition is that they cannot distribute it on the basis of seniority. If the committee cannot agree on how to divide the funds, they forfeit the dollars.

Unlike pay plans where only a few teachers are eligible for incentive dollars (e.g., only teachers in tested subjects such as reading and math), the New York plan makes incentives available to everyone at the school, thus encouraging educators to work together. Research shows that collaboration leads to improved student achievement. New York's plan also promotes collaboration among teachers and between teachers and the principal.

Participation in the program is voluntary: Each school must have a 55 percent affirmative vote of UFT members before it joins the program. Thus, the plan ensures teacher buy-in, an essential ingredient of any successful pay program.

The plan will target 200 of the highest poverty schools in the system in the first year, costing $20 million. That money is being put up by a New York City-based business coalition. Two hundred more schools are likely to join the plan in the second year, with the city assuming financial responsibility.

How will we know if the program is succeeding? Improved achievement in schools that have long suffered from low performance will be an important marker. In addition, the approach will prove significant if it encourages high-quality teachers to take assignments in chronically low-performing schools.

Other districts have implemented new teacher-pay plans. As in New York City, teachers unions have played a central role in designing and promoting them.

But New York City, by virtue of its size and visibility, takes teacher performance pay to a new level. In addition to actively rewarding educators who raise student achievement, this plan should help dispel the conventional wisdom that unions are wedded to the traditional and can't, or won't, think deeply about how to solve the problems plaguing the nation's most troubled schools.

New York City's plan was a breakthrough agreement among the city, led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg; the school system, led by Chancellor Joel Klein; and the UFT, led by Randi Weingarten. This high-level agreement is a testament to their leadership and to the importance of this issue. We can only hope that other school districts follow suit.

Julia E. Koppich is a San Francisco-based education consultant and coauthor, with Charles Kerchner and Joseph Weeres, of "United Mind Workers: Unions and Teaching in the Knowledge Society."

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