Teaching Profession

Cincinnati Teachers Rebuff Performance Pay

By Bess Keller — May 29, 2002 5 min read
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Amid bad feelings between the union and district administrators, Cincinnati teachers overwhelmingly rejected a groundbreaking plan that would have based their pay on performance.

The teachers quashed the proposal by a vote of 1,892 to 73 taken May 15-16, with about two-thirds of eligible, full-time teachers casting ballots.

The union and the district set the vote in contract negotiations two years ago, after agreeing on a proposal that has since been modified. (“Teacher Performance-Pay Plan Modified in Cincinnati,” Sept. 19, 2002.) The issue could be taken up again in talks for a contract that will replace the one expiring at the end of this calendar year. Meanwhile, leaders on both sides last week made blame their theme.

While continuing to voice support for performance pay, they said further progress depended on the actions of the other side.

“We’re willing to explore other options to deepen the commitment to pay for performance,” said Sue Taylor, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. But she demanded that Superintendent Steven Adamowski first stop what she views as the scapegoating of the union for the defeat, which Ms. Taylor said was largely the result of teachers’ doubts and fears about a plan that was moving ahead too quickly.

Kathleen Ware, the district’s associate superintendent, denied that Mr. Adamowski had attacked teachers and charged that the union had not done its part to allay concerns. “We have not closed any doors; we are open to any proposals,” she added.

The plan would have broken new ground both because it would have moved teachers off a salary schedule determined largely by years of experience to one focused on classroom skills and because it applied to teachers across the 42,000-student district. Other such efforts are mostly limited to one or a cluster of schools in a district.

Plan Not Dead

The Cincinnati pay plan was based on an extensive evaluation system, which determines whether teachers advance in five career categories, ranging from “apprentice” to “accomplished.” The evaluations entail multiple classroom observations by fellow teachers and administrators and portfolios that include logs of parent contacts, lesson plans, student work, and more.

Other plans, such as one being piloted in Douglas County, Colo., base evaluations more directly on student results, an approach many teachers see as fraught with unfairness.

Experts on teacher pay called the outcome of the Cincinnati vote disappointing, but not unexpected given the magnitude of the change.

“We need a lot of experimentation with teacher pay, and the essence of experimentation is trying things that haven’t been fully proven and improving them over time,” said Bryan Hassel, a co-director of Education Impact, a nonprofit research group in Charlotte, N.C., and the author of a study scheduled for release this week on teacher pay. “I’d like to see more of that spirit in places like Cincinnati.”

Still, both he and Allan Odden, a leading consultant on teacher compensation who works with Cincinnati on its teacher-evaluation system, said they were hopeful that the differences could be ironed out. “This is a pretty big stumble,” said Mr. Odden, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but “I would not consider [the plan] dead by any means.”

Some of the acrimony surrounding the vote goes back to a poll the American Federation of Teachers affiliate conducted in April. The poll showed that only 9 percent of Cincinnati’s teachers favored the plan, which many feared might have the effect of lowering salaries. As a result, district officials proposed giving teachers already in the system the choice of switching to the new method of determining salary. Only new teachers would be automatically paid according to the plan.

But union officials said the proposal came too late to be clearly incorporated into the ballot, and did not ratify or publicize it. Superintendent Adamowski countered by taking the information to principals, an act union officials called a breach of labor law. District officials have denied the charge, which has been made formally.

Evaluation Inexperience

Leaders on both sides have a lot riding on the outcome. The superintendent gave the plan a high profile when he campaigned successfully for a recent tax-levy increase that goes to reducing class size in kindergarten through 3rd grade. The union president won election a year ago on a platform of creating a more democratic union and pushed for slowing down the compensation plan to better match a professional-development program just getting started.

Ms. Taylor pointed out that only about 10 percent of the district’s teachers had been through the evaluation process. “The other 90 percent don’t have direct experience of how it would work,” she said, and have to guess what their salaries would be under it. “How can I sell such a plan to teachers?”

Jason Barkeloo, a teacher at the district’s Virtual High School, said he has seen the compensation system’s flaws up close. A former U.S. Army captain who won two awards as a first-year teacher two years ago, Mr. Barkeloo got a low rating from an evaluation that he says “had no applicability” to the kind of work he does as a founding teacher at a high school that gives courses online.

Ironically, Mr. Barkeloo switched districts to come to Cincinnati after he heard about the new pay plan. “I’m a big supporter of incentive mechanisms,” he said. “If [the district] had properly piloted it, and properly planned it, I would have backed it.” Instead, he voted “no” and urged other teachers to do the same.

One of the 73 teachers who voted in favor of the plan is Sara Eisenhardt, a classroom veteran now in charge of a program to promote National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification. “I believe you can attribute the achievement gap [among children of different racial and ethnic groups] to a gap in teacher adequacy, and pay for performance was one way to narrow the gap,” she said, explaining her vote.

But, Ms. Eisenhardt added, as a member of the committee that worked on the plan, she had urged more time for its implementation so that professional development could catch up to the new performance standards.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 2002 edition of Education Week as Cincinnati Teachers Rebuff Performance Pay

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