It's Ba-ack. . .

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At the third National Education Summit, held in Palisades, New York, in October, the topic du jour was how to improve the quality of America's teachers. After much jawboning by the 100 or so state governors, business leaders, and educators gathered for the conference, participants issued a raft of recommendations, including one that had the feel of déjà vu: link teachers' pay to their performance and skills.

Merit pay, it seems, is back. One of education's hottest ideas in the 1980s, it stalled in the '90s under the weight of opposition and its own failures. Teachers balked at tying salaries to the seemingly subjective evaluations done by principals, and school systems dabbling with new pay schemes typically ran short of money, forcing them to cap the number of teachers receiving the extra pay.

But now, policymakers, school officials, and even teachers' unions are rethinking salary structures. Some of the impetus comes from new research that underscores the importance of good teaching to student learning. It also stems from concerns over quality--pay incentives may persuade good teachers to remain in the classroom--as well as the notion that teachers, like students, must be held accountable for performance.

"The question is no longer whether the traditional, lock-step salary schedule will survive," says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association in New York. "It will not."

During the past few months, unions, school boards, and state officials in Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington have set a host of new salary plans in motion. Most reject the traditional concept of merit pay, which set pay based on supervisors' evaluations, and instead tie salaries to student performance or teachers' knowledge and skills.

Denver made perhaps the biggest splash in September, when the 4,300-member Denver Classroom Teachers Association agreed to participate in a two-year pilot program. Like many of the new pay plans, the pilot will tie teachers' salaries to how well their students do in class. Teachers will receive $500 bonuses for participating in the pay plan the first year, plus another $1,000 if they meet two goals for raising student achievement. In the second year, teachers can earn bonuses of $750 for each goal met.

About 450 teachers in 12 elementary and three middle schools will participate in the pilot. High schools will be added the second year. At least 85 percent of the teachers in a school must agree before the faculty can participate. Teachers who object to the plan can transfer out of their schools.

After two years, if the teachers don't like the system, they can vote to discontinue it. That flexibility was a big factor in the teachers' approval of the controversial plan, Becky Wissink, vice president of the Denver union, an affiliate of the National Education Association says: "They are controlling their own destiny."

Bob Chase, president of the NEA, praises Denver's collaborative approach to teacher pay and the pilot program's emphasis on gathering data. "People are assuming that pay for performance will enhance student achievement, but nobody really knows whether that's true," he says. The decision to halt or continue the pay plan, he says, "will be based on good data and research. That is a bit revolutionary in education."

Denver's pilot will test three approaches to using student performance to set pay. Teachers in roughly one-third of the participating schools will focus on setting and meeting goals to improve students' scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. In another group of schools, teachers will be judged on their students' progress on classroom projects and teacher-written tests. And the final set of schools will see whether students' scores improve when their teachers undertake professional development.

Allan Odden, an expert on teacher compensation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the Denver plan will contribute to the continuing debate over how to link teachers' pay to student performance. "Merit pay in the past was usually trying to identify the top 15 or 20 percent of teachers, usually on fuzzy criteria," says Odden, a proponent of paying teachers to gain specific knowledge and skills. "Here, the criteria are much clearer--it's student performance."

-Ann Bradley and Lynn Olson

Vol. 11, Issue 3, Pages 15-16

Published in Print: November 1, 1999, as It's Ba-ack. . .
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