Under The Microscope

April 01, 2002 5 min read
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Wrapping up an experiment with teacher evaluations, the Cincinnati public school system is considering tying teacher pay to performance.

For the past two years, teachers in Cincinnati have been the subject of an experimental performance-review system that leaves no stone unturned. Educators spend hours compiling portfolios of their best work for evaluators. District administrators and principals observe classroom work and rank teachers in one of five categories: apprentice, novice, career, advanced, and accomplished. They evaluate teachers based on 17 standards that include such phrases as “designs clearly aligned assessments” and “understands students’ academic needs, community, and cultural heritage.”

What do teachers think of this trial system? Reviews are mixed. “It’s more stressful than helpful,” says intermediate school teacher Anne Voelkerding. “No matter how objective the rubric, it’s still very subjective, depending on who’s evaluating you.” But 6th grade teacher Cheryl Jones likes how the evaluators “see you as a whole teacher.” She adds, “It looks like I have done well, and it would be really fantastic to be rewarded.”

For now, superior performance is rewarded with a pat on the back. But if the union agrees to adopt the performance-review scheme, called the Skills and Knowledge Compensation Plan, in late spring, the Cincinnati evaluators could begin shooting with real bullets in September: Teachers’ rankings on these evaluations will determine their salaries.

Cincinnati is just the latest of nearly a dozen districts across the country that are testing some form of merit pay as an alternative to the traditional, across-the-board salary grid for teachers. Merit pay schemes—also known as pay-for-performance plans or differentiated pay— combine “knowledge and skills with performance incentives to strengthen teaching as a profession and support standards-based reform,” explains Allen Odden, a University of Wisconsin education professor who consults on teacher pay reform. Yet as districts’ experiences show, implementing pay-for- performance can be tough.

For one thing, developing a way to assess teacher performance is tricky. Relying on student test scores is out, says Kathleen Ware, associate superintendent of the Cincinnati Public Schools, because they can’t easily be compared across subjects and grade levels. For example, she notes, elementary school teachers often aren’t assigned enough students to make scores statistically valid, while high school teachers spend too little time with individual students.

Also, winning teacher support for merit pay schemes is a challenge. “The system is controversial because teachers could take a significant pay cut if their rubric scores are lowered,” says Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. “Yes, a new teacher has the potential to move up the pay scale quickly, but all teachers run the risk of a decrease from one evaluation to the next in the five-year cycle.”

Educators like Eric Christenson, a retired high school English teacher in Arlington, Virginia, where the school board is considering performance-based pay, believe such plans are second-class: “Legislators who’re thinking about creating a merit pay system for teachers would do well to first create a system for rewarding superior legislators for their work and for encouraging inferior ones to try harder,” he scoffs. “When they get the bugs worked out of that, they could apply the same principles to teachers.”

“We believe professional compensation should be linked [to results], but the devil is in the details,” admits Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C. “People don’t think about the Herculean work it takes to put these programs into place.”

Among the oldest merit pay plans is the six-component program that’s been up and running for eight years in Douglas County, Colorado. Principals rate teachers using traditional observation. Only those with a satisfactory rating get an annual pay increase, while the rest get remediation. Teachers rated “outstanding” may apply for an additional $1,250 annual award, as well as a $300 to $500 reward for learning new classroom skills. Also available are group incentives for schools and teacher teams, according to the plan’s designer Ellen Bartlett, assistant superintendent for human resources for the Douglas County School District. The fear that the plan would cause competition hasn’t been borne out, she says. “Teachers have pulled together to help each other do better.”

Less encouraging for reformers is the merit pay plan just abandoned in the Philadelphia suburb of Colonial, Pennsylvania. Last September, teachers there went on strike for eight days over a plan adopted in 1998 that gave bonuses to the top 20 percent of educators based on a formula using standardized test scores and socioeconomic data on students’ race, family income, and education levels. Teachers felt the plan was forced on them; the school board thought the strike was a grab for large across-the-board pay increases. Although salaries are no longer tied to meeting student-achievement goals, the district continues to keep an eye on performance.

Teachers want to have confidence that what they do is measured correctly, says the AFT’s Weil. “You’ve got to focus on growth, not scores, and you need a rolling average over years so you don’t get false positives from a great crop of kids but not a good teacher. Teachers haven’t been using data over their careers. We’re going to get there over time, but we’ve got to make teachers comfortable first.”

Cincinnati merit pay supporters hope their system, which has been under discussion since the mid-'90s and was devised jointly by labor and management, has what it takes to pass muster with the union in May. Still, union support may not necessarily make the plan a permanent fixture in the fall. It’s estimated that the program will result in $1 million worth of pay hikes. With declining enrollment in the district, there’s a slim chance that the school board may decide that even a pay plan that makes everyone happy is too expensive to implement.

—Charles S. Clark


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