Teaching Profession

Rethinking Merit Pay

By Alexandra R. Moses — December 22, 2006 3 min read
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Minnesota math teacher Bob Nystrom has a shot at earning a bonus of up to $2,000 this school year. He just has to receive high marks on his evaluations, help boost his school’s test scores, and meet an ambitious classroom goal he set earlier in the year.

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Such performance incentives have long been a staple in private industry. Until recently, though, they were rare in public education, where pay is almost always determined by years of service.

Exact numbers aren’t available, but performance pay’s recent expansion has been dramatic, according to James Guthrie, director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy, an education-reform group at Vanderbilt University. One-third of all U.S. public school students will likely soon have teachers who are paid, at least in part, based on their success in the classroom, Guthrie says.

Large-scale programs were launched in Minnesota and Denver last year and in Texas this year; others are in the works in Florida, Alaska, and Iowa. The U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Incentive Fund made $99 million available in fiscal 2006 for programs in high-needs schools; at least 16 have received funding thus far. Proponents say the financial rewards will motivate teachers to do better, and encourage good teachers to stay at economically disadvantaged schools, which are often the targets of such initiatives.

But the movement isn’t without controversy.

Many educators balk at the idea, arguing that there’s no fair way to measure teachers’ effectiveness and that performance pay pits educators against one another when they compete for a limited amount of money.

National Education Association President Reg Weaver says funds would be better spent on technology, school security, smaller classes, or across-the-board raises.

Some schools are opting out of bonus systems when they can, even if that makes their teachers ineligible for a potentially large pay boost. In Texas, for example, more than 50 schools declined to participate in a program aimed at high-poverty districts, refusing individual payouts of up to $10,000 per teacher.

Similar problems plagued an earlier wave of performance-pay initiatives in the 1980s, when the concept was called “merit pay.” Those plans failed for several reasons, one of which was their unpopularity.

“They were wildly opposed by teacher unions,” Guthrie says. “But now there’s sort of a grudging acceptance.” Some of the new programs seem likely to repeat the same old merit-pay mistakes, but others are giving teachers significant input during the design phase. “On balance,” Guthrie notes, “they’re far more thoughtful today.”

This year, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage Public Schools, where Nystrom teaches, was among more than 30 Minnesota districts to sign on to Q Comp, a state program that funds performance pay and professional development. In Denver, a similar program called ProComp automatically enrolls new hires in a performance-pay system, but allows teachers hired before a certain date to opt in. So far, about 1,200 have, out of approximately 4,000 who are eligible.

Nystrom worked on his district’s program as president of the Burnsville Education Association. But even he has reservations about wide-scale performance pay: “I don’t think it’s a panacea.”

That said, the program in Burnsville has some attractive features: Teachers aren’t judged exclusively on test scores, and the bonuses are noncompetitive—teachers earn a maximum of $2,000 and there’s enough money available to pay every teacher that amount, should they all meet the criteria.

Perhaps even more important, the pay incentives are just one piece of a larger plan that gives teachers opportunities to take classes, serve as mentors, and move up a career ladder. Says Nystrom: “That’s the real strength of this program.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Rethinking Merit Pay

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