Education

Performance Pay’s Promise

By Alexandra R. Moses — March 13, 2008 3 min read
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This year teachers in Minnesota’s Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district has a shot at earning a bonus of up to $2,000 this school year. They just have to receive high marks on his evaluations, help boost their schools’ test scores, and meet an ambitious classroom goal set earlier in the year.

Such performance incentives have long been a staple in private industry. Until recently, though, they were rare in public education, where pay is almost always determined by years of service.

Exact numbers aren’t available, but performance pay’s recent expansion has been dramatic, according to James Guthrie, director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy, an education-reform group at Vanderbilt University. One-third of all U.S. public school students will likely soon have teachers who are paid, at least in part, based on their success in the classroom, Guthrie says.

Large-scale programs were launched in Minnesota and Denver in 2006, and in Texas last year; others are being implemented in Florida, Alaska, and Iowa. The U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Incentive Fund made $99 million available in fiscal 2006 for programs in high-needs schools—34 districts and schools received funding under the program this year. Proponents say the financial rewards will motivate teachers to do better, and encourage good teachers to stay at economically disadvantaged schools, which are often the targets of such initiatives.

But the movement isn’t without controversy.

Many educators balk at the idea, arguing there’s no fair way to measure teachers’ effectiveness and that performance pay pits educators against one another when they compete for a limited amount of money.

National Education Association President Reg Weaver says funds would be better spent on technology, school security, smaller classes, or across-the-board raises.

Some schools are opting out of bonus systems when they can, even if that makes their teachers ineligible for a potentially large pay boost. In Texas, for example, more than 50 schools declined to participate in a program aimed at high-poverty districts, refusing individual payouts of up to $10,000 per teacher.

Similar problems plagued an earlier wave of performance-pay initiatives in the 1980s, when the concept was called “merit pay.” Those plans failed for several reasons, one of which was their unpopularity.

“They were wildly opposed by teacher unions,” Guthrie says. “But now there’s sort of a grudging acceptance.” Some of the new programs seem likely to repeat the same old merit-pay mistakes, but others are giving teachers significant input during the design phase. “On balance,” Guthrie notes, “they’re far more thoughtful today.”

This year, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage Public Schools, where Nystrom teaches, was among more than 35 Minnesota districts to use Q Comp, a state program that funds performance pay and professional development. In Denver, a similar program called ProComp automatically enrolls new hires in a performance-pay system, but allows teachers hired before a certain date to opt in. At this point, nearly half of Denver’s teacher’s are part of the program.

Nystrom worked on his district’s program as president of the Burnsville Education Association. But even he has reservations about wide-scale performance pay: “I don’t think it’s a panacea.”

But the program in Burnsville has some attractive features. Teachers aren’t judged exclusively on test scores, and the bonuses are noncompetitive—teachers earn a maximum of $2,000, and there’s enough money available to pay every teacher that amount, should they all meet the criteria.

Perhaps even more important, the pay incentives are just one piece of a larger plan that gives teachers opportunities to take classes, serve as mentors, and move up a career ladder. Says Nystrom, “That’s the real strength of this program.”

This article originally appeared, in a different version, in Teacher Magazine.

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