Teaching Profession

Some Efforts on Merit Pay Scaled Back

By Nora Fleming — September 20, 2011 9 min read

Two competing pressures—downsized budgets and rising policy interest—have left the future of performance-based teacher compensation uncertain.

A dicey fiscal climate and research that has shown limited impact have led some states and districts to scale back, abandon, or change their fledgling merit-pay programs, causing observers to wonder what the next few years will hold for compensation systems that link teacher pay to student achievement.

Just this summer, Texas officials squeezed funding for the country’s largest merit-pay program, from $392 million to $40 million, blaming the state’s deficit. And New York City wiped out its $56 million schoolwide program, citing disappointing research results.

Yet new examples are also springing up, largely because of increased federal funding for performance pay and state and federal legislation encouraging, and in some cases requiring, alternative-compensation schemes.

Still, there may not be a “trend” to predict the future of such programs, said Matthew Springer, the director of Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives, in Nashville, Tenn., and an assistant professor of public policy and education.

Research Findings

RAND Corp.

  • Released: July 2011
  • School District Focus: New York City
  • Findings: Bonuses had no positive effect on student, teacher, or school performance.
  • Suggestions: Improve teacher buy-in and perceived value of bonuses.

More on this research:
“Merit Pay Found to Have Little Effect on Achievement” (Sept. 21, 2010)

National Center on Performance Incentives

  • Released: September 2010
  • School District Focus: Nashville, Tenn.
  • Findings: No impact on student achievement for 6th to 8th graders, minimal impact on 5th graders.

More on this research:
“No Effects Seen in NYC Schoolwide Pay Program” (March 9, 2011)

Mathematica Policy Research

  • Released: May 2010
  • School District Focus: Chicago
  • Findings: No improvement on student math and reading scores; no effect on teacher retention.

More on this research:
“Performance-Pay Model Shows No Achievement Edge” (June 1, 2010)

Mathematica Policy Research Study of 2010 Teacher Incentive Fund Grantees

SOURCE: Education Week

“The next couple of years will be very telling [because of] local/state revenue shortfalls as well as the possibility of the federal funding well running dry, and the research evidence, to date, hasn’t been overwhelmingly positive,” Mr. Springer said in an email. “At the same time, it is critical districts/states do not lose sight of the fact that current compensation practices are incredibly inefficient.”

While increasing attention has gravitated toward the evaluation and compensation practices for teachers, specifically in shifting from traditional salary models tied to experience and education levels to merit-pay systems that factor in a teacher’s impact on student achievement, some say the interest in performance pay could be faddish and short-lived.

The journal Education Next reported last spring that only 500 out of 14,000 districts had merit-pay programs. Two of the largest programs in the country were also dismantled this summer.

The 90 percent reduction of Texas’ District Awards for Teacher Excellence program, which provided one-time bonuses linked to performance reviews, will mean the number of teachers receiving bonuses could decline from 180,000 this year to 18,000 within the next two.

The program is a victim of the state budget deficit that led to some $4 billion in cuts to school funding overall, state officials say, and not lack of support for merit pay.

A Texas Education Agency official says the program was thought to be successful, based on research conducted by the National Center on Performance Incentives in 2010. Nevertheless, the agency said it doesn’t expect teacher performance to suffer from the significant decline in bonuses.

Some Texas districts have had more favorable results than others, however. In Houston, criticism emerged that the district let too many teachers qualify for bonuses, yielding minimum impact on teacher performance. Now it will use the budget cuts as an opportunity to rework the program, said Jason Spencer, a spokesman for the district, tightening the eligibility criteria, but making overall bonuses high.

Waste of Money?

But both state and district teachers’ union members worry that the merit-pay programs themselves are a waste of money and do little to improve teacher performance.

“Our teachers are already working longer hours with bigger classes and are still expected to perform at a higher level,” said Rita Haecker, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association. “We tend to disagree that people perform better with a reward. We think people perform better when they feel supported in their job and are paid a living salary.”

Other states are also abandoning performance pay. According to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, Alaska’s three-year program recently ended, mainly because of friction with local unions. Iowa’s program was also eliminated.

And money isn’t the only reason some places have backed off performance pay.

In July, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp. released a study of New York City’s merit-pay program that found no substantial impact on teacher, student, or school performance. The district later announced it would discontinue the three-year program.

The RAND study adds to a growing body of research that has found limited effects of merit pay, such as one conducted on Nashville teachers last year.

The research is not abating, either. Mathematica Policy Research has been commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education to assess the 2010 round of Teacher Incentive Fund grantees over the course of their grant cycle. It is unknown whether the first round of grantees, awarded in 2006, will continue their merit-pay programs after their five-year grants expire at the end of this year. Tif requires districts to institute performance pay based on student achievement.

Coming on Board

A number of states and districts are still moving forward with plans or pilots for new merit-pay systems, and others have maintained them through innovative or hybrid models even though they face limited finances and have yet to prove significant statistical impact.

Some of those efforts stem from increased federal support for merit pay. A provision in the Race to the Top program requires states and districts to change their teacher-evaluation practices and encourages them to be tied to salary. In addition, funding for the Teacher Incentive Fund has been increased from $99 million to about $400 million in four years, giving states and districts the opportunity to try new ways of paying teachers.

Indiana, Michigan, Utah, and Idaho, for example, have all looked at implementing or expanding performance pay in their states within the past year alone. And some places that even have a prior history of ineffective merit-pay models are still trying to put new systems in place.

According to Kathy Christie, the chief of staff at the ECS, many of the earlier state and district programs were unsuccessful because the incentives were too small or the models were untested. The new systems may have different effects, she said, because many have tried to increase incentives and strengthen criteria and evaluation practices.

“We could have seen the first generation of performance-pay systems, and perhaps we’ll start seeing [a new generation of systems] that are more robust, more meaningful, and have an impact on recruiting people to the teaching profession,” Ms. Christie said.

She pointed to Florida as one example. Since the 1970s, Florida has tried a number of models with limited success. The voluntary nature of its last performance-pay effort found only 5 percent of the state’s districts participating. Still, Florida is trying again.

Its winning Race to the Top application in 2010 included a proposal to implement teacher salary increases linked to student performance, and this past year, the state legislature passed a law that will require districts to put new salary schedules in place for teachers by 2014-15, linked to recently revised state teacher-evaluation practices.

Under the new plan, 50 percent of a teacher’s summative evaluation will be tied to student performance, and, based on locally negotiated contracts, teachers can earn increases if they are deemed effective or highly effective. Teacher payouts will be determined by each district, depending on its budget situation.

Kathy Hebda, Florida’s deputy chancellor for educator quality, said the state is optimistic the program will be more effective than Florida’s earlier merit-pay plans, given lessons learned from the past. The new system uses salary increases rather than one-time bonuses, which will provide more incentive to teachers, Ms. Hebda said. The new evaluations will also provide all teachers, regardless of subject matter, the potential for performance-based salary increases. Earlier incentives focused more on teachers who were evaluated through student assessments in core subjects.

The Florida Education Association has filed a lawsuit to block the teacher-evaluation and -pay law.

Virginia is also moving in the direction of state-supported merit pay. Using a combination of state and federal funding, Virginia is implementing a pilot this year. An incentive package was offered to 169 schools listed on a “hard to staff” list, that will provide bonuses to teachers in those schools that receive exemplary ratings on the state’s new evaluation system, which links 40 percent of the teacher’s evaluation to student growth on state tests, among other measures.

Charles Pyle, the education department’s communications director, said he hopes the pilot program will encourage more districts to restructure their compensation practices; 25 schools accepted the state’s offer this summer.

Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich, a Republican, has gotten behind a proposed merit-pay system for his state, too. While a number of the state’s Race to the Top districts are already implementing some form of performance pay, the governor’s proposal this past spring for a new state-supported teacher-compensation system would have all other districts implement some sort of performance-based pay for teachers by 2013-14, based on their respective collective bargaining agreements.

Even the new models are controversial.

“There has been a tendency to avoid some of the evidence of what works because it doesn’t fit the popular narrative,” said Rob Weil, the director of field programs for the American Federation of Teachers. “We need to design systems that drive instructional improvement that lead to increased student achievement. Many of the recent attempts have shown that this is not happening.”

Alternative Models

Several large urban districts have adopted performance pay the past few years and have kept the programs going despite limited supportive research, disagreements with local teachers’ unions, and declining finances. The varied incentivized-compensation models some districts have implemented, which take into account more than student test scores, and, in some cases, do not rely solely on state or district funding, may be the right direction, say some analysts.

Denver’s Professional Compensation System for Teachers, or ProComp, one of the oldest surviving merit-pay programs, is a joint effort between the teachers’ union and district and uses local taxes for funding. ProComp factors teacher education level and skills, as well as student achievement, into account in determining salary increases and bonuses.

In the District of Columbia’s IMPACT-Plus, supported through private dollars, teachers can earn higher bonuses based on the school they work in and the subject matter they teach, in addition to their students’ test scores. And Baltimore’s teacher-contract system, adopted last year, allows teachers to earn annual salary increases tied to student performance, as well as such factors as professional development and teacher evaluations.

Mr. Springer of Vanderbilt’s performance-incentives center said that many of the existing programs add on incentives or bonuses rather than redesign compensation practices in ways that could potentially yield greater results and cost less. He estimates 80 percent of districts’ operational expenses go toward outdated educator-compensation systems, that aren’t linked to student academic outcomes.

Whether districts and states test innovative compensation strategies given available resources, he added, “will likely be dictated by interest-group politics and if the system can amass adequate ... knowledge to design and operate them.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education.
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2011 edition of Education Week as Some Efforts On Merit Pay Scaled Back


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