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The Merits of Teacher Merit Pay

The lure of $4.35 billion in competitive Federal “Race to the Top” education funds is nudging states to develop pilot projects to dramatically reform their educational systems.

Merit pay for teachers is one of the pieces that U.S. Dept. of Education reviewers will look for in these applications for federal grants. “It’s time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones,” declared President Obama in March 2009.

“Merit pay” has an appealing ring, but confusion and complexity surround this not-so-obvious notion, contributing to the hot controversy that has accompanied it for generations.

For this article, five prominent area educators discussed how to fairly measure teacher “merit” and what elements a valid merit pay system would contain.

The Participants

Steven Baker, spokesperson, New Jersey Education Association

Vincent Cotter, EdD, superintendent, Colonial School District, Plymouth Meeting, PA

Colleen DiFabio, science teacher and president, Colonial Education Association, Colonial School District, Plymouth Meeting, PA

Richard Ingersoll, PhD, professor of education and sociology, University of Pennsylvania and author of Who Controls Teachers’ Work? (Harvard University Press, $22.50)

Theodore (Ted) Hershberg, PhD, professor of public policy and history, University of Pennsylvania and author of A Grand Bargain for Education Reform (Harvard Education Press, $29.95)

What Should Merit Pay Reward?

There’s no single definition or formula for merit pay. Occasionally the term has been used synonymously with incentive pay to entice teachers to work in certain districts or schools.

Some advocates expect merit pay to serve as a motivator for teachers to work harder or better, or to attract a higher level of professionals to the field. Merit itself has been defined in different ways.

Many school districts consider credentials and experience in their teacher pay scales. People frequently use the term to call for “accountability,” by which they expect some monetary connection between what teachers do and how much children learn. Generally merit pay is considered a reward for excellence, which begs the question: What does excellence look like and how do you measure it?

 Measuring Merit

The role of the teacher is critical, but it is not the only key in determining what a child learns. Everyone knows one teacher who was fabulous for Aidan but disappointing for Ava. And how does even the very best teacher succeed in schools where students are frequently truant?

Hershberg: “The current pay system is based on longevity. We haven’t aligned performance goals with our reward system.”

Baker: “Standardized test scores are poor measures of student learning. Filling in bubbles in reading and math tests is not a skill students need after they leave school. There are lots of valuable things lost in that process. We need to avoid incentivizing the wrong outcomes.”

Must-Have Elements
There is consensus about the need for school improvement and stronger student outcomes. Experts agree that the most promising approaches to linking financial rewards with teacher performance will:
• Build collaboration, rather than competition.
• Reflect buy-in by all participants, rather than be imposed.
• Target professional development to specific needs and outcomes.
• Give more control and decision-making to the people being held accountable.
• Use multiple measures for evaluation.
• Find, measure and incentivize those variables that improve learning (not merely test score performance).
• Determine a sustainable revenue source.

Hershberg: “A single test score — achievement — is predictable by family income. We need a different way to express individual student growth.”

DiFabio: “Doctors don’t cure 100 percent of their patients. It’s the same with a child. You push them toward their potential, but what is best and works best for each student is different.”

Cotter: “A new infrastructure is needed — a career ladder to recognize and compensate teacher leaders who choose to remain in teaching rather than moving into administration as the only alternative."

Ingersoll: “What part of the teachers’ job do we evaluate? The way they parent students, serve as social workers or manage their behavior? If we reward a very narrow aspect of their job, we might be penalizing our best professionals. It may not even be the teacher, it may be the school. Where is the locus of accountability if teachers don’t have control over their professional development, curriculum and discipline policies?...

“Can we isolate the contribution of the teacher? Separate that from all the other variables? I’m cautiously hopeful.” 

Two Approaches to Merit Pay

In the coming years, experts predict increased experimentation with a wide variety of models for teacher performance pay. The Colonial School District in Plymouth Meeting, PA has developed a nationally prominent merit system, while scholars at the University of Pennsylvania have created a widely studied model.

The Colonial System

The Colonial School District’s performance pay system rose from the ashes of an extremely tumultuous and unpopular approach that was abandoned about 10 years ago.

Unlike the first plan, the current Colonial plan was created with the input of teachers and administrators. It rewards continuous improvement by each school in meeting testing goals that surpass scores from the previous year. Schools reinvest that money in additional competency-building and student programs.

Key features of the plan include:

  • A focus on performance at the school level
  • Collaboration among educators in each school on setting goals for improving learning outcomes and determining how to meet them
  • The opportunity for every teacher to apply for advanced leadership responsibilities such as master teacher, peer mentor and curriculum writing. These roles allow them to remain in the classroom while still earning additional pay for assuming work that promotes professional growth and stronger student outcomes.

The district attributes its significant growth and improvement on a variety of measures, including PSSAs and SATs to this performance pay model.

“School Improvement Teams set goals every year based on data. They develop detailed action plans and interventions. They expect and achieve successful outcomes. We hold people accountable. We have a process, and we’ve counseled teachers into other professions,” says Dr. Cotter.

“We must avoid pay systems that increase competition and divisiveness, and instead champion those that cultivate a collaborative environment for teachers and support them as they work together to bolster student achievement,” he adds.

“We’re fortunate in this district to get the resources, professional development, technology and materials we need to give the best possible instruction,” says DiFabio.

Value-Added Assessments

Value-Added Assessments use detailed data over time to try to account for change in student performance that is strictly attributable to a specific teacher, while holding constant all the other relevant variables.

The idea is to try to exclude the influence of everything else except the teacher on each individual student’s academic growth. A noted model created by University of North Carolina researcher William Sanders, PhD, is premised on:

  • Being able to track individual student test scores in every subject with every grade and every teacher over time.
  • Projecting each student’s annual scores from his previous scores
  • Comparing each individual student’s expected test score with his actual score for a given grade and subject.

Across the nation, several school districts are trying versions of value-added assessments, but no district has completely implemented Dr. Hershberg’s “Grand Bargain” model, developed for the University of Pennsylvania’s Operation Public Education.

The “Grand Bargain” averages each teacher’s “value added” as suggested by Dr. Sanders over a period of three years to try to randomize the impact of unusual factors such as a personal crisis or difficult combinations of students.

Dr. Hershberg recommends this system be used in conjunction with “observation protocols” where teachers are also evaluated in their classroom performance by panels of other teachers and administrators. He emphasizes that such information be used not only to reward successful teachers, but also to remediate and support those in need of help and eventually dismiss those who still cannot meet standards. Professional development for teachers is essential, he says.

“Some minor imperfections of this model pale against the imperfections we’re currently doing. It’s a robust methodology vetted by teachers and union presidents,” says Dr. Hershberg.

 Ann L. Rappoport, PhD is an educational consultant and a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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