Teaching Profession

Dept. Unveils Revamped Rules for Teacher-Pay Fund

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 02, 2010 5 min read
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In what will ultimately shape key details of the next generation of federally financed differentiated-compensation systems, the U.S. Department of Education last week laid out proposed criteria for grants under the $600 million Teacher Incentive Fund.

Among other factors, the department wants to see the new pay plans incorporate five “core elements,” including educating teachers and the community about the plan; revising teacher- and principal-evaluation systems to guide classroom observations; providing professional development aligned to the new systems; linking student-achievement data to payroll systems; and obtaining teacher, principal, and union support.

The Education Department received $400 million for TIF provided through the fiscal 2010 federal-appropriations process and an additional $200 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The new grants—expected to be awarded this fall—represent the first major scaling-up of the program since its inception.

What’s more, the Obama administration has proposed putting $900 million into TIF for the fiscal 2011 budget cycle if Congress doesn’t succeed in retooling the teacher-quality programs in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year.

“If ESEA isn’t reauthorized, there’s a lot they’re going to be able to do with TIF with this guidance,” said Robin Chait, a senior policy analyst with the Center for American Progress, a Washington think-tank, who tracks the TIF program.

First created in 2006, TIF pays for districts and states, or partnerships between those entities and a nonprofit organization, to institute performance-based-pay systems in high-need schools.

Though it is probably the highest-profile federally funded teacher program, it has yet to be officially set down in law by Congress—a happenstance that gives the Education Department much say over the program’s structure.

Comprehensive Changes

By taking the unusual step of releasing proposed criteria before putting out an actual call for applications, the administration is implicitly acknowledging that it is seeking major changes to the program, Ms. Chait said.

Core Elements

In its notice of proposed criteria for the Teacher Incentive Fund grants, the U.S. Department of Education has highlighted five core elements for the teacher- and principal-pay systems:

1. A plan to communicate to teachers, administrators, and the community about the components of the pay system.

2. The involvement and support of teachers and principals in the district and, where applicable, of the local teachers’ union for the bargaining needed to carry out the grant.

3. Evaluation systems for teachers and principals that take student-achievement growth into account, as well as multiple observations keyed to a set of professional teaching standards.

4. A data-management system linking student achievement to teacher and principal payroll systems.

5. Professional development to inform teachers and principals about the measures of effectiveness and to help them use data generated by those measures to improve teaching.

SOURCE: Education Week

Among the changes is a much more explicit recognition that teachers’ compensation should be tied to an evaluation system using multiple gauges of a teacher’s performance. All grantees would be expected to use both student-achievement information and observations of teachers linked to a set of performance-based standards in evaluating teachers.

As for the compensation piece, grantees would have to explain how the amount of bonus funding they would award under their plans would be enough to change educators’ behaviors. Applicants would also have to show that their grants would be both financially sustainable over time and aligned with other efforts to improve teacher effectiveness, such as changes to induction or tenure.

The department proposes giving additional points to applications that plan to use a “value added” methodology to examine student-test-score data over time and to applicants whose plans are designed to recruit and retain effective teachers in hard-to-staff subjects.

Allowable uses of funds would also be somewhat more expansive than in previous iterations of the programs. For instance, grantees could take up to a year to use funding to develop the five core elements of the pay plans.

The new criteria would define a “high-needs school” as one where at least 50 percent of students qualify for federal school nutrition programs, up from the 30 percent threshold used for prior grants.

No Union Veto

The TIF program has long been worrisome for teachers’ unions for its reliance on student-achievement data for compensating teachers.

The 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers allows for such plans as long as they are locally bargained with teachers. The National Education Association, though, doesn’t endorse using test scores for such purposes. In 2009, however, officials at the 3.2 million-member union wrote in a report that NEA would support local affiliates seeking to participate in innovative compensation programs through TIF.

Officials for both unions have stated that the TIF criteria should require that the pay plans be bargained at the local level.

The federal notice, out Feb. 26, acknowledges that elements of the pay plans might need to be negotiated with teachers’ unions, but it does not appear to grant them that level of oversight of the plans. It says only that applicants must secure the support of “unions in participating [districts] where they are the designated exclusive representatives for the purpose of collective bargaining that is needed to carry out the grant.”

Officials of both the NEA and the AFT could not be reached for comment about the proposals.

Evaluation Plans

The notice also spells out detailed plans for evaluating the program’s effects on student learning and on the composition of the teacher workforce using a rigorous, scientific “random assignment” methodology consisting of a group of treatment and comparison schools.

It would focus on a number of questions, including the impact of plans on student achievement and on educator recruitment and retention. Schools implementing individual bonuses and those rewarding groups of educators would be studied and compared with schools where educators received across-the-board raises and those with no differentiated compensation.

As an incentive to get districts to participate in the stricter evaluation competition, which would be conducted separately from the main selection process, the department would award those grantees at least $1 million in added support.

Observers praised the idea of getting front-end participation in a rigorous evaluation, but added that the benefits of taking part will need to be substantial in order to offset the challenges of going through a control trial.

“A financial sweetener during tough budgetary times might be helpful, but the most powerful incentive for schools and districts would be the possibility of solving a persistent and pervasive problem,” said James. W. Kohlmoos, the president of Knowledge Alliance, which represents education research and development groups. “If TIF offers that kind of potential problem-solving benefit, then the money sweetener is just frosting on the cake.”

To date, few performance-based-pay systems in the United States have been studied using a random-assignment methodology. The largest such study is currently being conducted in Nashville, Tenn., by the National Center on Performance Incentives, a research center located at Vanderbilt University.

Of the existing 34 TIF grantees, only one site, Chicago, is using a randomized design to evaluate its pay program. Two others are using “quasi-experimental” methodologies that allow researchers to draw some causal conclusions.

The remaining sites are using methods that produce observational data, but don’t establish cause-and-effect relationships.

Comments on the proposed criteria are due by March 29.

A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Rules Proposed for Revamping Teacher Pay

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