School & District Management

Union Buy-In Varies Among Big TIF-Grant Winners

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 04, 2010 5 min read
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Four urban school districts that have won some of the largest shares of the $442 million in grants handed out last month through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund have varying levels of buy-in from their local teachers’ unions, which could affect how their plans for performance-based teacher compensation play out.

On the one hand, the plan for Pittsburgh schools, awarded $37 million, has been approved by the local teachers’ union through collective bargaining. And in Austin, Texas, the local teachers’ union has backed the winning proposal and is poised to be a key player in executing it. The 85,000-student Austin Independent School District, which was awarded $62 million in TIF money, is located in a state that doesn’t have collective bargaining for most public employees.

But, on the other hand, local teachers’ unions have not yet signed off on the winning plans from Chicago Public Schools or the New York City Department of Education, which got $34 million and $36 million, respectively, when the latest round of TIF grants were announced on Sept. 23. Those plans must still go through the collective-bargaining process.

Started in 2006 under President George W. Bush, the Teacher Incentive Fund’s purpose is to support efforts to create performance-based teacher and principal pay systems in high-needs schools. The program has received a large infusion of funds under the Obama administration. For example, in addition to its $97 million appropriation from Congress in fiscal 2009, the program got $200 million in economic-stimulus funds that year from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has also been a strong supporter of the fund. While he was the chief executive officer for the Chicago district, he oversaw Chicago’s iteration of the program, called the Teacher Advancement Program. In 2006, that plan had received $27.5 million from the Teacher Incentive Fund for implementation in 40 schools.

Yet support from the local teachers’ union for Chicago’s TIF-funded program seems particularly uncertain.

We're not interested in merit pay. We have never agreed to it.

One possible hitch for the execution of the teacher-incentive plan in Chicago is the fact that the Chicago Teachers Union had a change in leadership this summer, and the new leader, Karen Lewis, is vehemently opposed to merit pay for teachers.

“We’re not interested in merit pay. We have never agreed to it,” said Ms. Lewis in an interview last week. “We don’t like it because it is extraordinarily detrimental to real collaboration among teachers.”

But she acknowledged that the Illinois legislature has passed a law that requires school districts to move toward tying teacher evaluations to student outcomes.

That law, says Janet M. Knupp, the president of the Chicago Public Education Fund, requires that by 2012, half of the teachers in Chicago will have a significant portion of their evaluations tied to student outcomes. Her organization is a partner with the 409,000-student Chicago school system in carrying out the plan to use TIF funds.

Common Elements

Ms. Knupp characterized the TIF-backed program as a chance for the Chicago district and the union “to prepare for what we know is coming in 2012.” She added, “It is my hope they [union leaders] would see this as a great opportunity to shape what is fair evaluation of teachers.”

Ms. Knupp said that the new teacher-incentive plan as written has similar elements to the Teacher Advancement Program that is already being supported by TIF money. Those elements include providing a lot of professional development directed by teachers themselves, offering career ladders for teachers to become leaders, and having student outcomes used as a basis for teacher evaluations, she said. Both plans say that teachers will be paid according to evaluations of their practices in the classroom and student results, she said.

The Teacher Advancement Program has been implemented in 40 schools and the new plan will be carried out in 25 other schools.

Preliminary results of a study of the first two years of the Teacher Advancement Program yielded no evidence that the performance-based compensation system had boosted achievement on math and reading tests in participating schools, compared with a group of similar, nonparticipating schools. (“Merit-Pay Model Pushed by Duncan Shows No Achievement Edge,” June 9, 2010.)

Ms. Knupp said, however, that the study likely didn’t capture the positive effects of the program because it hadn’t yet had time to work. She expects the findings from the third year of implementation, due in November, will show more promising results.

With its TIF grant, the 1.1 million-student New York City district will expand a teacher-incentive program already in place, said John White, the deputy chancellor for the school system’s division of talent, labor, and innovation. The existing program was approved by New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, but the extension will have to be put to collective bargaining as well, he said.

“While this particular program will require collective bargaining in that it’s changing the compensation system for our teachers, this program honors great teachers who take on the greatest challenges, and we know that’s important to the union and expect their support,” he said.

The performance-pay program already in place in 11 schools was funded with federal school improvement funds, he explained. The TIF-funded expansion will be carried out in 75 other schools, he said. It will give extra pay to teachers and principals who work in high-needs schools and “maintain high performance,” he said.

Richard Riley, a UFT spokesman, said in an e-mail that “the expansion of the program to additional schools has not yet been negotiated, and would have to be approved before the city can proceed with the plan.”

The announcement of the new TIF grants came at the same that findings from a rigorous experimental study showed a bonus-pay system for teachers in Nashville, Tenn., had no overall impact on student achievement. (“Merit Pay Found to Have Little Effect on Achievement,” Sept. 29, 2010.)

A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Union Buy-In Varies Among Winners of Hefty TIF Grants

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