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Administrator's ARRA Guide: Part 3

Winning the Race



While it’s too soon to know how many states will include merit pay in their bids for a share of DOE Secretary Arne Duncan’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund, it’s clear that rewarding teachers for performance is important, not only to the fund but to President Obama, personally. “Pay for performance has been important to the president since he was a senator,” says David Hoff, deputy assistant secretary for communication with the DOE. Districts experimenting with merit pay are few and far between, but in the following pages we profile three districts who have implemented different types of merit systems: Oscoda, Michigan; Denver; and Plano, Texas.

Race to the Top’s Big Question:
Is Merit Pay Ready for Its Close-Up?

After losing 40 percent of its students in three months when Wurtsmith Air Force Base closed in 1992, Oscoda (Michigan) Area Schools know about tight budgets. But the continued drop in student enrollment (down from 4,000 to 1,300 today) and decline in state support motivated all sides in this Lake Huron community to take a stab at the previously unthinkable: merit pay.

According to school superintendent Christine Beardsley, the impetus for merit pay came from school board members, several of whom own or work for small businesses. In 2008, the board offered the 87-member union a $25,000 merit pay pot in addition to regular increases, for each of the next three years, retroactive to June 30, 2007, if teachers signed a new contract. They signed.

“The talks were difficult initially but a lot of teachers were spending their own money to equip their classrooms and the board wouldn’t have settled the contract without it,” Beardsley says. “I’m proud of my teachers for taking this on in a high union state. It’s a risk for them and shows their commitment to help students have a better life.”

To create immediate buy-in to the merit approach, each teacher got $250 in retroactive merit pay for the 2007–08 school year. For the then-imminent 2008–09 school year, Oscoda decided to award merit pay if Michigan Educational Assessment Program scores for a particular grade were higher than the same grade the previous year.

As a permanent solution, the board decided to award future merit increases to teachers whose classes meet state averages on Northwest Evaluation Association “adaptive” tests, and raise the bar from there. The semi-annual tests measure student progress during the year, helping teachers target lessons where students need the most help, says Beardsley.

The superintendent admits a $25,000 pot for 87 teachers is not a strong motivator but noted that sometimes recognition is more important than money. Besides, $25,000 a year is the most Beardsley could ethically spare from the budget, she adds.

Matt Hinckley, chief negotiator for the union, says he supported the pact with merit pay because the union had been 15 months without a contract and some teachers would earn more money. But basing teacher pay on student performance isn’t always fair, he notes, because classes vary from year to year, irrespective of their teachers. However, Michigan’s improved assessment testing and efforts to hire better teachers are steps in the right direction, he says.

On the other hand, board president Neal Sweet, a retired Oscoda teacher who earned more money as a summer campground manager than as a teacher, believes merit pay is a good motivator. Oscoda’s merit pay budget is “not big enough to fire up many people,” but this effort is a start and “I think the staff understands that,” Sweet says. “We’ll have to see how it plays out.”

So far, so good. The test results from 2007 to 2008 show improvement in seven of nine categories for students in fifth, sixth, and seventh grade.

Verdict Still Out on Denver’s Experiment
Ten years into its high-profile test, drawing conclusions is still hard for this big city.

Adecade ago, Denver school officials decided to change the rules of the contract dance: They were willing to pay teachers more money but they wanted to see results.

“The Board of Education said, ‘You can’t tell us your members are effective unless you can measure [learning] and make that the basis of pay,’” says Brad Jupp, a former union leader who had a central role in crafting Denver’s solution. “We agreed that the board’s moral argument was compelling,” but the practical work of aligning operations and instruction was daunting.

Nevertheless, the board’s directive resulted in a series of pilot projects, which Jupp (who left earlier this year to work on teacher pay and related initiatives with the U.S. Department of Education) helped to negotiate. Denver’s merit pay plan was extended district-wide in 2004, funded with a special tax levy generating $25 million a year in 2005, and became fully operational in September 2006.

Denver’s ProComp teacher pay plan scraps lane and step pay and substitutes bonuses for class achievement, not only collective, standardized class test scores but the attainment of two individual goals per student set by the teacher and principal. However, teachers can also be awarded bonuses for filling math or science jobs, working in hard-to-staff schools, completing post-graduate studies or professional development programs, and receiving a positive work evaluation. Bonuses for hard-to-fill vacancies and student performance gains alone can add up to $12,000 a year for every teacher. (See chart below for other examples.)

Perhaps symbolizing the difficulty of the task, Denver’s ProComp has been criticized from all sides, and changes to the pact in the summer of 2008 nearly caused a union walkout. Henry Roman, who was elected president of the Classroom Teachers Association in June and was among the original signers of the ProComp plan, says the resulting “ProComp Lite” changes of 2008 were a “harsh compromise” that will limit veteran teacher salaries by capping steps and substituting merit bonuses that don’t carry over from year to year. (Some do carry over.)

“Merit pay can help” boost student achievement, but it’s “not a silver bullet,” Roman says, citing the need for better feedback from principals and an improved teacher mentoring program.

On the other hand, the A+ Denver education watchdog/advocacy group and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy both fear that ProComp’s mix of incentives dilutes the impact of merit pay.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but some changes, like aligning pay and reward with outcomes, didn’t go far enough,” says Donna Middlebrooks, former executive director of the A+ group. “But there isn’t enough evidence yet to definitively say if ProComp is working.”

Jupp also says there isn’t enough baseline information to judge ProComp’s results but noted that Denver has outpaced the state as a whole in standardized test scores for the past four years.

“Early on, we saw some solid success,” he adds. “The ultimate test is whether or not the district sees strong growth at the individual and school level. If we don’t, we’ll need to retool the pay system.”

Building Teamwork, Stemming Turnover
Plano, Texas, takes the competition out of merit pay by judging teachers together.

When school administrators in Plano, Texas, learned last year about a new state merit pay program that would offer the district $3.5 million more for teachers, they jumped at the chance.

“The question was: Should we leave money on the table [because we’re unsure] or should we participate?” recalls Superintendent Doug Otto. “We decided we should get more money for teachers.”

Only 200 of the state’s 1,000 districts signed up to try merit pay plans last year. The state has earmarked additional money—$397 million for the next two years—to encourage more districts in this nonunion state to experiment with merit pay. In the program, 60 percent of the merit money must be used for bonuses based on student performance. Funds can also be used to pay teacher mentors and for professional development.

Under the new state District Awards for Teacher Excellence program, Plano designed its own plan to boost student achievement, targeting its low-achieving, low-income schools. And to foster teamwork instead of competition, Plano decided to award the merit increases based on the progress of an entire grade or department (per school) instead of individual classes.
“We pride ourselves on teamwork and we wanted to create a real team effort instead of pitting teachers against each other,” explains Associate Superintendent Jim Hirsch.

To measure student learning, the district created the Plano Effect Score, which determines if individual students achieved a year’s progress in reading, math, and science from the skill levels at which they started, with the totals combined into a classwide composite.

And the first-year results? Teachers are pleased and teacher turnover plummeted from 600 to 200, but whether the decrease is due to merit pay or the economy is unknown, Otto says. For the current year, Otto predicts the district will raise the qualifying benchmarks for a share of the state merit pay fund, which should be about the same dollar amount as last year, according to Hirsch.

Merit pay was a help to many teachers and a validation or “thank you” to others but didn’t prompt teachers to work harder, says Pam Clark, English department head at Vines High School and Plano’s Teacher of the Year. “We’re motivated because we want to make a difference in the lives of kids and help them succeed,” Clark says. “But if they took the money away, we’d still do the same thing because we’re professionals.

“This is the most student-oriented campus I’ve ever worked,” she adds.

Sara Bonser, principal of Williams High School, says merit pay rewarded teachers for exactly the right reason: Kids’ thinking and learning grew during the school year.

“We all planned a little differently [last year],” Bonser says. The district instituted a daily meeting for teachers in the same department to talk about lessons and strategies, and new interdisciplinary teams focused on identifying and helping struggling students. It makes a big difference when you have time to work as a team,” Bonser says.

In addition, the Plano Effect Score data alerted staff for the first time that high school students at or above grade level weren’t progressing as fast as below-grade students, Bonser says.

A committee later pinpointed the problem as lack of critical reading skills, which the schools will remedy with curriculum changes.

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