Recruitment & Retention

Performance-Pay Setup in Texas Shows Promise

By Vaishali Honawar & Bess Keller — March 07, 2008 7 min read

Independent studies of the nation’s largest performance-pay system suggest that the state-backed plans in Texas could be having positive effects on teacher attitudes, with educators reporting they collaborate more with colleagues and encourage students to work harder than they did before the plans were implemented.

Schools participating in the Texas programs also used a mix of performance indicators to measure teachers’ eligibility for bonuses, researchers affiliated with Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives found.

The findings, presented at a conference held here Feb. 28-29, appear to answer some common criticisms of such plans, including fears that they can foster a competitive environment among teachers at a school, and that they rely too heavily, and sometimes solely, on test scores.

Studies of other performance-pay plans presented at the Vanderbilt-hosted gathering found mixed results on such plans’ impact on student achievement. (“Performance-Pay Studies Show Few Achievement Gains”, March 12, 2008.)

State guidelines in Texas recommend teacher awards between $3,000 and $10,000, but researchers found that in a majority of cases, the awards distributed appeared to be less than $3,000.

The researchers, who scrutinized the first year of implementation of two of the three performance-pay plans in Texas, the Texas Educator Excellence Grant program and the Governor’s Educator Excellence Grant program, known respectively as TEEG and GEEG, sounded a note of caution, however. They pointed out that it could be too early to attribute their findings solely to the performance-pay programs, which began as recently as 2006.

Incentive Rewards

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SOURCE: Education Week

In the case of GEEG, even teachers who did not get bonuses responded positively, said researcher Lori Taylor, the reports’ co-author and an assistant professor at Texas A&M University.

“[These teachers] tended to be younger, less experienced, and could be planning on getting checks next year,” she said.

Researchers found that both of those programs also appeared not to have a sizable effect on the classroom-instruction practices of a majority of teachers, with only around 25 percent saying they had altered their practices as a result of the performance-pay plans at their schools.

No Guarantees

The studies, among the first independent evaluations ever of a state’s performance-pay program, were commissioned last year by the Texas Education Agency.

Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, launched the first and smallest of the programs, GEEG, in 2006 with an executive order targeting about 100 schools. The legislature expanded the program the same year, as TEEG, making about 1,200 schools eligible and providing about $100 million for the first of five projected years of operation. Additional legislation established another incentive program, District Awards for Teacher Excellence, or DATE, for which all public schools are eligible, though it currently requires matching funds from districts.

Implementation of TEEG has drawn controversy over the unpredictability of which schools are eligible. Funding is available for high-poverty schools that rise to a certain level of performance. Schools that get the award one year may not receive it the next.

For instance, because more schools applied for the grants, only 501 of the approximately 1,150 campuses that took part in TEEG last year were also eligible for the bonuses this school year. That meant more than 600 schools had to terminate bonus payments to teachers because the schools did not meet eligibility criteria.

The three plans are independent of district-implemented plans such as the much-publicized one in Houston.

TEEG, in its first year, provided $100 million in noncompetitive 12-month grants to 1,115 public schools with larger numbers of high-poverty students who are also high-performing. GEEG, a three-year pilot, makes available noncompetitive three-year grants to 99 high-poverty schools that meet certain performance criteria. Texas has around 1,200 school districts.

The third program, DATE, will give districts $145 million annually starting next school year.

District Flexibility

Matthew G. Springer, a co-author of the reports, said Texas will allocate about $245 million a year to educator incentives, starting next school year. The state, he said, gives schools considerable autonomy in carrying out the plans.

“Texas schools participating in TEEG and GEEG are able to develop and implement [programs] that meet their schools’ unique needs, whereas some other locations around the country implicitly assume a one-size-fits-all model is adequate,” Mr. Springer said.

The state sets some guidelines. Under TEEG, for instance, awards have to be based on at least two criteria: student performance and teacher collaboration. Indicators that could be used include teacher initiative, sharing of lesson plans with other teachers, participation in professional development, and service as a mentor. Rewards can also go to teachers assigned to math, science, and other shortage areas.

Donna Haschke, the president of the 65,000-member Texas State Teachers’ Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said she was concerned that schools’ plans still place too much value on student test scores, however. “It emphasizes the wrong thing to teachers and students as well,” she said. “Children do not come off an assembly line. … Some do well in tests and others don’t.”

Brock Gregg, the government-relations director for the 110,000-member Association of Texas Professional Educators, the state’s largest teacher group, found some merit in the programs, which he described as the result of political compromises.

“I believe performance pay is going to be accepted by educators over time,” he said, “as long as they have the ability to adapt programs to the needs of campuses and districts, and they can spread the awards out over everybody working in the schools.”

Opting Out

Both GEEG and TEEG require that 75 percent of the money given to a school go to members of the teaching staff, while the rest can be used for professional development, mentoring activities, and the like, or used to pay bonuses to noninstructional staff members.

Awards are given only to high-performing teachers, which means not all teachers at every participating school get a bonus.

A third study, of the 5 percent of eligible schools in Texas that chose not to participate in TEEG, found the large allocation for classroom teachers was a chief reason why those schools decided to say no to the performance-pay program despite the additional funds.

School leaders interviewed at 40 of the just over 50 nonparticipating schools said they favored school-wide awards over programs targeting individuals or teams. That stance was linked to concern that bonuses would be likely to undercut the culture of teamwork some schools had worked hard to build.

The researchers did not find blanket opposition to performance pay, said Jessica L. Lewis, the paper’s co-author, who presented it at the conference. Rather, there were feelings that some of the program’s guidelines were unfair or unwise. In addition, some of those responsible for declining the funds believed applying for the program or implementing it would put too many demands on already busy teachers and administrators.

The GEEG study found that participating schools used their money to pay bonuses to staff members other than classroom teachers, rather than for such activities as professional development. In fact, 87 percent of the GEEG schools chose to pay administrators, instructional specialists and support staff, campus-support staff, and health-support staff with funds that could also have gone to professional-development activities, mentoring programs, new-teacher induction, or retention and recruitment activities.

Small vs. Large

Another fairness issue, according to the school leaders, was how the state decided which schools could take part. For instance, an elementary school might be excluded because its pupil performance was too good, yet the middle school to which it sent most of its students might be eligible for the bonuses.

Many of those interviewed said their schools didn’t have adequate resources, such as time and expertise, for applying for the grant or for the recordkeeping it would require. Leaders complained about the short timeline for application.

Ms. Lewis and her colleagues, in their paper, recommend extending the time and offering schools help with devising ways to evaluate teacher performance.

Small schools and districts were more likely to decline the money than larger ones, the study found. That finding is linked not only to resources, but also to questions of fairness, which can become sharper in an environment in which more people know each other well. The confidentiality of awards is also harder to sustain, which could make envy more of a problem, according to some of the leaders.

In addition, some schools turned down the state funds based on misunderstandings of the program’s rules, the researchers found. For instance, school leaders believed that teachers of subjects other than those tested by the state could not be included in the awards, though many schools used local benchmark assessments to get atstudent learning gains for the purpose of giving teachers bonuses.

“It is very possible that if employees were better informed about the [program], they would have displayed greater support and willingness to participate,” the authors conclude.

A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as Performance-Pay Setup in Texas Shows Promise

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