Pay-Performance Link in Salaries Gains Momentum

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After decades of resistance, the barriers holding back the idea of paying teachers based on how well they do their jobs may finally be weakening.

The third National Education Summit's endorsement this month of salary structures that would recognize differences in skill and performance gave the latest signal that the tide is turning.

Last month, Denver teachers approved a pay-for-performance experiment that will give bonuses to some teachers if they meet goals for their students' achievement. And Republican Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania has set aside $1 million for districts to establish programs that reward teachers for superior individual performance.

Such actions reflect a growing willingness on the part of teachers' unions and school officials to rethink salary structures. Some of the impetus comes from new research that underscores the importance of teacher quality to student achievement. It also reflects a desire to change the compensation system so that good people have an incentive to remain in the classroom, and the logic that if students are to be held accountable for results, so should adults.

"Our members are more and more willing to take a look at some of these issues," said Don Cameron, the executive director of the National Education Association.

At the same time, many union leaders remain adamantly opposed to the notion of a direct link between the pay of individual teachers and the test scores of their students.

While sentiment for broader changes in the compensation structure of teachers has been growing for some time, the pace has quickened:

  • Last week, the St. Paul, Minn., school board approved a union contract that no longer grants automatic step increases to all teachers. Instead, teachers in need of improvement must show evidence that they are making progress to earn the incremental raises.
  • In September, teachers in Coventry, R.I., ratified a contract that will allow individual teachers to earn $1,000 on top of their base pay if they can demonstrate excellent performance by completing portfolios of their work. "I believe that it's very important to recognize the best teaching," said John E. Deasy, the superintendent of the 5,600-student system, "and that recognition becomes substantial when you attach money and salary to it."
  • In June, the Seattle Education Association approved an agreement with the district to devise an evaluation system that would be based, in part, on student achievement. Classroom evidence, not test scores, will be the primary source for showing student progress. Eventually, said Roger A. Erskine, the NEA affiliate's executive director, those evaluations will be used for compensation decisions.
  • This fall, the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, is working on a proposal that would tie salary advancement to teachers' ability to show performance against standards of professional practice. The system is being tested in 10 schools. Teachers could also earn extra pay for acquiring specific sets of skills, such as expertise in technology.

Allan Odden

Several states also have broached the idea of paying more to teachers in subject areas with shortages, those willing to teach in hard-to-staff schools, and those who have particular knowledge and skills or who have shown superior performance.

"We're expecting teachers to know more and do more, and in order to be successful at that they need a whole lot of new knowledge and skills," said Allan Odden, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, "and you could reinforce that in your pay structure."

In Kentucky, for example, a state task force is likely to recommend extra compensation for teachers who meet some of those criteria.

And in Florida, Commissioner of Education Tom Gallagher has proposed paying some of the state's best teachers up to $80,000 a year if they agree to mentor others. In addition, all employees would be eligible for financial incentives tied to student performance.

Small, Steady Steps

Though none of these developments is dramatic, in and of itself, and they affect only a small fraction of the nation's teachers, they indicate that the days of the traditional salary schedule may be numbered.

Much of the recent activity has been spearheaded by members of the Teacher Union Reform Network, or TURN, a group of 21 NEA and AFT locals.

Adam Urbanski

"The question is no longer whether the traditional, lock-step salary schedule will survive," said Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association and the director of TURN. "It will not."

But he and other union leaders caution that the new ideas on compensation are unproven. And most districts are striving for measured, steady progress rather than big headlines.

"We should proceed very carefully in departing from what we have now, because if we rush into something that has not been demonstrated as effective, we could actually make the situation worse," said Mr. Urbanski.

One approach definitely not on the table is the traditional concept of merit pay.

In the past, such programs were often based on supervisors' evaluations, which teachers viewed as subjective.

"They don't work," Mr. Cameron of the NEA said. "But the idea of incentives based on student performance and teacher performance is something that I think we have to take an objective look at."

"We remain opposed to individual pay tied to student results," said Tom Mooney, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers and a vice president of the AFT. "I think that's unsound, unprofessional, unethical, and no one has shown me a system that's even halfway credible."

He argued that too many factors are beyond the control of teachers, including students' own efforts.

Tying Skills to Pay

Instead, many of the newer plans reward teachers for specific knowledge and skills. The most prominent examples center around the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a privately organized group that recognizes outstanding teachers through a rigorous application and review process leading to national certification.

Today, 23 states and about 85 districts offer financial supplements to teachers who are board-certified.

In some cases, the extra heft in a teacher's paycheck can be substantial. North Carolina, for example, gives board-certified teachers a 12 percent raise. Florida's raise amounts to 10 percent of the average teacher salary in the state, with double that amount for those who mentor others.

Many teachers can now earn salary credits for taking almost any education courses. But the discussions at the recent education gathering of governors, business leaders, and educators in Palisades, N.Y., centered around limiting those pay incentives to professional development that is linked to standards, district priorities, and schoolwide improvement plans.

Mr. Odden noted that, in the past, unions were reluctant to move away from the traditional, single salary schedule because of a lack of reasonable alternatives. "Now," he said, "there are viable, professional alternatives to the old merit pay."

Rewards for Results

Incentives tied to gains in student achievement at the group or school level are also sparking increased enthusiasm. At least 18 states now have laws that include financial rewards for high-performing or improving schools.

Gov. Gray Davis of California, a Democrat, recently approved $50 million for one-time bonuses of up to $25,000 each for teachers in underachieving schools where students show substantial gains.

Many districts have similar incentives. In some places, the money can be used only for school improvement. In other sites, teachers can pocket the cash.

The plan that emerged from the education summit for a 10-state experiment to add incentives into salary structures is based on lessons learned from the private sector. ("Teaching Tops Agenda at Summit," Oct. 6, 1999.)

But the language is purposely vague about whether those incentives will be group-based or tied to the performance of individual teachers.

Vol. 19, Issue 7, Pages 1, 18

Published in Print: October 13, 1999, as Pay-Performance Link in Salaries Gains Momentum
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