Survey Reveals Fla. Teachers Don’t Understand Pay Plan

By Bess Keller — February 29, 2008 4 min read
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Teachers in a large Florida school district that has embraced performance-pay plans show at best “modest” support for the concept, according to a paper presented here at a conference on performance incentives in K-12 education.

Further, the teachers in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, seemed to have little understanding of how Florida’s two recent pay-for-performance plans operate, despite their district’s participation in the programs and their local union’s approval of the district’s plans, the researchers found.

“It was remarkable how little they understood about STAR and MAP, given that … they were being rewarded at the time of the survey,” said Brian Jacob, one of the authors and a professor of education policy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The first rewards were distributed in August, about two months after the survey, according to district officials.

Mr. Jacob presented his paper at a “research to policy” forum, the first hosted by the 2-year-old, federally financed National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College here. The conference drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 300. Organizers hailed the numbers as a sign of mushrooming interest in the use of pay for performance to improve the quality of the nation’s teaching force.

The Florida study drew on an online survey of Hillsborough teachers that the authors conducted at the end of last school year. Though the response rate was low at 12.7 percent, the researchers say the teachers’ answers are most likely meaningful because those who responded resembled teachers in the district generally in terms of gender, race, years on the job, degrees, and union membership.

The 192,000-student district was the first in the state to gain approval for its plan under the controversial Special Teachers Are Rewarded teacher-bonus program, which was replaced after just months of operation in 2007 by the Merit Award Program. STAR limited its individual bonuses to the top 25 percent of teachers as measured at least half by student learning gains based on standardized test results, while MAP allows team bonuses and does not cap the number of recipients. Fewer than 10 districts are currently participating in MAP.

About three in 10 Hillsborough teachers received bonuses under the MAP payout, school district officials said.

Ambivalence on Bonuses

In the survey, teachers expressed a preference for incentive pay based on individual teacher performance rather than school or grade-level team, for instance. The rewards they most favored, though, were the current practices of paying for advanced degrees and professional development. Just under half the teachers thought student gains on the state’s standardized tests were of importance in deciding on bonuses, according to the survey. Both STAR and MAP mandate such use.

About half the teachers said they did not know what specific targets they would have to meet to receive an award, the survey shows. Still, four in five teachers believed that STAR awards would not distinguish effective teachers from ineffective ones, according to the survey.

More generally, half the teachers said that individual incentive pay would be a positive change in compensation policy. But a little more than half—56 percent—were concerned that such compensation would threaten “the collaborative culture of teaching.” And only about a quarter of the teachers thought that performance pay would spur them and their colleagues to work harder or team up more often, according to the survey.

The survey also indicates that new teachers, along with those who expect to teach longer, were more likely to support performance pay than veterans and short-timers. Middle and high school teachers and those in schools with larger proportions of black students were more supportive of such pay than their elementary counterparts and those in schools with fewer black students.

The researchers found that teachers with a positive view of their principal’s leadership ability and those who believe they are effective in the classroom tend to support incentive pay more than those without such perceptions, a finding that has been echoed in at least one other large-scale survey of teachers.

Mr. Jacob said his work, and that of others, strongly suggests that policymakers seek the support and understanding of teachers as they forge ahead with pay-incentive programs.

As with other speakers at the conference, he recommended that new ways of paying teachers should not be adopted as stand-alone reforms but as part of a package that includes professional development and means for teachers to advance their careers, as well as recruiting and grooming more skilled principals.

Two personnel managers from the Hillsborough district who attended the conference said the school system was stepping up its efforts to explain MAP to teachers with a DVD and meetings with principals and union representatives, among other means. “We think it’s probably true that the plan was not well understood,” said Joe Perez, a manager in the human-resource department.

A local newspaper report found that Hillsborough teachers in low-poverty schools were more likely to receive the awards than those in high-poverty schools. Mr. Perez said that the formula for allocating the money was being altered to take into account the challenges of teaching poor children, and that he expected this year’s result to not be biased in favor of teachers at wealthier schools.

The district already pays teachers at high-poverty schools more than other teachers, and under a federal Teacher Incentive Grant is planning this year to top up the bonuses of teachers in such schools who also receive MAP bonuses.

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