Cincinnati Teachers Rebuff Bonus-Pay Design
Union leaders and administrators in Cincinnati are asking why teachers last week rejected a joint union-district plan to give educators bonuses if their schools could demonstrate overall improvement.
Members of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers voted 1,160 to 804 against the "school incentive award" program that staff representatives and district officials designed over the past seven months.
The plan would have placed the 52,400-student Ohio district among a growing number of systems across the country that are experimenting with incentive-pay programs in a profession where union contracts have traditionally had compensation based solely on teachers' education and experience. Similar programs are at work in districts in North Carolina and Texas, and a statewide incentive program is in place in Kentucky.
"I don't think we had enough time to sell it, and I think some people didn't understand it," said Greg Smith, the director of organization for the CFT, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "I really feel that the design team did a good job coming up with something as fair as possible."
A Focus on Quality
Unlike earlier merit-pay programs attempted in some districts, the Cincinnati plan would not have based the salaries of individual teachers on their own students' performance. Instead, it would have given cash bonuses to all teachers in any school that met improvement targets by the end of next school year. Measurements of progress would have taken into account student scores on state tests, student dropout and attendance rates, and staff attendance.
"I'm not necessarily a total believer that this will get the desired result, but I think it's worth a try," CFT President Tom Mooney said. He said he viewed the program as a four- to five-year experiment.
"And it is a far more sound device than one based on the results of a single class, because there are so many factors that are out of a teacher's individual control," he said.
The district has already set five-year improvement goals for all 80 of its schools. Any school that progressed at least one-third of the way toward its goal would have been eligible for the awards. Unlike a few incentive programs that have allowed school personnel to decide how to use the money, the Cincinnati district would have given full-time teachers a straight monetary bonus of $1,400 a year.
The intent was to concentrate whole schools' staff members on improving quality.
"It's a way for educators to stay focused on what their schools are trying to achieve," said Kathleen T. Ware, an assistant superintendent in the district.
Even if teachers had approved the incentive program, the plan still faced another hurdle. Union leaders and administrators agreed that the bonuses would not be covered by current district funds. Instead, they hoped to raise the money--a minimum of about $400,000 for the first year--from outside sources, including local business groups.
"To me, it seems well worth a business community's investment because it's an element of the system that will rivet everyone's attention on performance," said Allan R. Odden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor who co-directs the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. He also advised the Cincinnati negotiators.
Union and district leaders said last week it was too early to say why teachers turned down the chance to earn extra money.
"We're going to find out why," Ms. Ware said. "Some may have felt that it wasn't right for a professional to receive a bonus or thought, 'I'm working as hard as I can, and I'm not going to work any harder if I get a bonus,' though that wasn't the intent of it. Or there may be concern of tying pay in any way to student performance," she said.
Both sides agreed not to drop the idea. They plan to survey teachers to find out what about the proposal turned them off. They also agreed to keep soliciting money to pay for such bonuses in the event that teachers approve the plan in another vote in the fall.
"School-based incentive programs are very controversial," Mr. Odden said. "Once the programs are in place, though, you generally find people feeling better about them."
Vol. 17, Issue 37, Page 6Published in Print: May 27, 1998, as Cincinnati Teachers Rebuff Bonus-Pay Design