Iowa Approves Performance Pay For Its Teachers

By Julie Blair — May 16, 2001 7 min read
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Lawmakers in Iowa discarded their traditional teacher-compensation system last week and voted to replace it with one that would pay educators based on their performance in the classroom and students’ achievement, rather than on the number of years spent teaching.

The $40 million package, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, not only would radically alter the statewide salary structure, but also would articulate standards for educators, reinvent the evaluation system, and outline a teacher-bonus plan. That plan would allocate cash rewards for teachers and others employed in schools whose pupils showed improvement on assessments.

After nearly dying earlier this spring, the measure was passed last week by both chambers by substantial margins, but still must be signed into law by Gov. Tom Vilsack. Though one of the policy’s main architects, the Democrat has not said whether he will sign the measure, which many members of his party opposed.

Republicans, however, ensured its passage. “We needed our teachers to be paid competitively compared to the states surrounding us, and we wanted to be sure there was opportunity and accountability in the system,” said Sen. Nancy Boettger, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate education committee, an educator herself.

But critics maintain that the plan is deeply flawed.

“The biggest problem is that there is no sustained, stable supply of money to keep this going,” said Jolene M. Franken, the president of the 32,000- member Iowa State Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “It really puts school districts in a bind because the bill states that any money not provided by the state has to be provided by the school district.”

Furthermore, the complicated system will take so long to implement, Ms. Franken argued, that a majority of Iowa’s 34,000 teachers will not receive the substantial raises lawmakers intended to give them until years after the plan goes into effect.

Only a handful of districts and public schools have adopted so-called pay-for-performance models. Last May, the 44,000- student Cincinnati school district was the first locality to put such an effort in place. A voluntary pay-for-performance system has been up and running in Douglas County, Colo., since the early 1990s, and Denver launched a pilot program in 1999. (“Cincinnati Teachers To Be Paid on Performance,” Sept. 27, 2000.)

Four Steps to Top

Iowa’s compensation plan aims to recruit young stars to the state and retain talented veterans by rewarding their hard work with better pay and opportunities to advance their careers quickly, said Ted Stilwill, the director of the Iowa education department, who helped craft the proposal. Such incentives would ultimately lead to higher student achievement and stave off a teacher shortage, state officials believe.

The system, which would be mandated statewide in 2003, is based on what lawmakers have termed “a four-step career path,” and would increase the minimum salary for beginning educators from $23,000 to $28,000, Mr. Stilwill said.

The plan would require that teachers be given at least minimum raises as they moved up the ranks. At the least, teachers at the top of the salary schedule would make $41,500 annually. Some of the lowest-paying districts in the state pay top teachers about $33,800 under the current system, according to a survey by the teachers’ union.

Teachers already in the Iowa public schools would be phased into the compensation plan in 2003 at the second step of the career level without a change in their pay, Mr. Stilwill said. Any of Iowa’s 374 school districts could volunteer to participate in the plan starting this coming fall—and receive the higher salaries immediately—but it is unlikely that any would do so, he said.

Under the system, Mr. Stilwill said, beginning teachers would take part in an induction program and be assigned mentors for two or three years. At the end of that time, they would each be given a comprehensive evaluation with the goal of earning a permanent license.

As envisioned by the plan’s authors, the teachers ideally would move through the next three stages within the next three years. Such determinations would be made during comprehensive reviews conducted by district administrators, and, in the final step, by a regional team from outside the school district. Lawmakers outlined eight broad standards to be used in the evaluations. Educators would, for example, have to prove that they had mastered the subjects they teach and classroom discipline. The education department would be responsible for fleshing out the details, Mr. Stilwill said.

The standards are the first statewide education benchmarks of any kind to be enacted by the Iowa legislature, which historically has left such definitions to local districts. Iowa, for instance, is the only state without uniform academic standards for students.

Comprehensive evaluations of teachers would be conducted every five years, or more often if requested by educators, according to Mr. Stilwill. Annual assessments would also be administered, but only in order to target professional development for teachers. Evaluators would be required to go through extensive training to ensure that assessments of teachers were fair and meaningful, Mr. Stilwill said.

The final portion of the compensation plan, to be piloted in six schools this coming fall, would reward school employees with cash bonuses if students showed improvement schoolwide. Local districts would define what constituted improvement and decide which measures to use to gauge gains.

Currently, advancement in the salary schedule is based on the number of years spent teaching, college credits, and advanced degrees earned.

“Most of the graduate courses people in Iowa take are not directly connected to their work as a teacher,” Mr. Stilwill said. “The new plan will ensure that professional development directly supports teaching.”

No Selling Point?

Opponents of the system, however, say it would be just as expensive as, and more cumbersome than, the one already in place.

“It will take anywhere from two to seven years for teachers to realize any money from this plan,” said Ms. Franken of the teachers’ union.

Midcareer professionals or veteran teachers who were phased into the system, she said, would essentially have their salaries frozen until busy administrators could take the time to provide the comprehensive evaluations required for the teachers to move up the career ladder. Moreover, unless all educators within one school were initially assessed and advanced within the same time frame, the system would be unfair, Ms. Franken said.

Those points are true, Mr. Stilwill said, but once the plan was implemented, teachers would have the opportunity to advance within the salary schedule at their own pace. A talented educator could be earning top pay within five years, the schools chief said. Under the old system, that achievement would take significantly longer.

Another problem, Ms. Franken said, is that the plan would not permit teachers to contest evaluations.

“I have yet to talk to a teacher that believes that this new plan will help retain people in the profession,” said Lew W. Finch, the superintendent of the 18,000- student Cedar Rapids district. “In fact, many of the teachers believe that it will force them to leave the district, and they certainly don’t see it as a selling point.”

Some of the salary increases would be negated because districts would be required to add a few school days to the calendar, Mr. Finch said.

Moreover, he said, administrators who conducted evaluations could become overwhelmed with the large number of such reviews and give short shrift to teachers who would depend on those assessments to receive pay raises.

“Our principals have 35 to 40 people to evaluate,” Mr. Finch said. “How in the world are they going to do justice to the system?”

Money Borrowed

Of greater concern to many is the state’s ability to pay for the effort, a project lawmakers say would cost between $300 million and $400 million over the next several years.

The compensation package was jeopardized earlier this year when state officials reported that they had significantly smaller revenues than projected, said Sen. Michael W. Connolly, the ranking Democratic member of the education committee. To make up for the loss, legislators opted to slash budgets in nearly all areas of government, including K-12 education.

After proclaiming that the plan should go “in a lockbox,” lawmakers borrowed the $40 million from the state’s tobacco-company settlement fund, Sen. Connolly said. The money must be repaid to that fund, however, and next year, money for the teacher-compensation plan would likely have to be allocated from the general fund.

“There is no stable, ongoing funding steam,” added another Democrat, Rep. Mary J. Mascher, a member of the education committee and an elementary school teacher. “This is an unfunded mandate.”

Gov. Vilsack, though, “will work hard to maintain this,” said Joe Shannahan, a spokesman for the governor. “This is a promise the governor made to the kids of Iowa.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2001 edition of Education Week as Iowa Approves Performance Pay For Its Teachers


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