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Questions abound as districts shift to merit pay for teachers

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Raymond Park Intermediate Academy Principal Ryan Russell sits in on the fifth-grade classroom of Jen Hess for a three- to five-minute "walk through" evaluation of her class.

If your child’s teacher seems a little bit on edge this year, it might not be your imagination.

Education reforms now going into effect in Indiana, and similar ones sweeping the nation, are targeting something many Americans consider to be strictly off-limits: their paychecks.

The laws passed in 2011 and being implemented over the next two or three years were partly based on the principle of merit pay.

Under Indiana’s new law, the state will ask that test performance of students be factored into pay raises for the first time. That is a major shift away from the rigid pay tables in most school districts that awarded raises primarily based on a teacher’s years of experience and the academic degrees they earned.

Among teachers, questions abound. If teacher pay is to be partly based on student scores on standardized tests, how does one evaluate an art teacher? Or physical education? Or music? Will the law weaken union negotiators? Is it really just a ploy to help school districts cut costs? How does that improve student performance?

“The level of concern from our teachers is through the roof,” said Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts. “It’s higher than I’ve ever seen it.”

So far, the answers to such questions have been largely based on economic and political theory: Merit pay will increase incentives to do good work. Good teachers will make more money. Poor teachers will be removed. Overall pay — along with student performance — could actually rise.

And, besides, it’s more fair, argues Will Krebs, the Indiana Department of Education’s director of policy and research. “If they take on more responsibility over time,” he said, “they should be compensated and recognized.”

Still, it’s anyone’s guess how the reforms will play out. Data to prove either side’s point are scarce. So, as the political debate ends and the struggle to put theory into practice begins, only one thing seems certain: Teachers’ paychecks are right in the middle.
A growing trend

Teacher evaluations

The Hechinger Report and Indianapolis Star have teamed up to produce a series on new teacher effectiveness measures in Indiana.

Read the rest of the series

You can also read our previous series on the similar issues in Tennessee, Wisconsin and Florida.

Spurred on, in part, by President Barack Obama’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top federal grant competition, education reform is exploding around the country. And the program gave preference to states that agreed to start merit pay plans. School districts in at least 42 states have some form of merit pay, according to the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University.

Still, many educators criticize performance pay plans, arguing that the promise of more money will not make them work harder. And research backs them up. A 2010 study by the National Center on Performance Incentives found no significant difference in student achievement between teachers who were given bonuses for boosting test scores and those who weren’t.

Proponents of merit pay counter that the current salary structure doesn’t always make sense, either — research has demonstrated no relationship between advanced teaching degrees and student performance — and say the ultimate goal of merit pay is to attract higher quality students into the profession.

The concept of merit pay for teachers isn’t new. In 1999, Denver began a system under which teachers can earn bonuses of anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars by taking hard-to-fill positions, meeting specific goals or boosting student test scores.

A 2011 study by researchers at the University of Colorado School of Education found that although Denver Public Schools saw significant test score gains since 2006, the increases cannot be directly attributed to the merit pay system. Other performance pay plans have been scrapped because of a lack of funding or results.

Indiana education officials think they can get merit pay right by letting school districts make most of the key decisions about how to pay teachers. Districts will be able to decide on their own how much to weigh factors such as a teacher’s experience, leadership roles and performance review.

“We know we will see lots of different systems come together,” Krebs said. “Some will go in completely different directions.”

And that, in part, is what makes some teachers antsy.

A model for districts

To help guide school leaders, Krebs is offering a state model plan. It’s a spreadsheet with calculations already built into it. Districts can simply plug in factors such as the dollar amount available for teacher pay, the current salaries of the teachers, their performance rating numbers and credit for five other factors, including years of experience, education level, performance review, leadership roles and the academic needs of the school district.

The model then spits out each teacher’s pay raise amounts.

Krebs designed it to be easily customized, if districts choose. A superintendent can change the weight of any factor. This way, said Mindy Schlegel, who heads the state’s office of educator effectiveness and leadership, districts move beyond just education and experience to reward teachers for good performance in areas that matter more to student learning.

“You have a set amount of money you always budget for raises,” she said. “Until now, everyone got a raise based on two factors. Now we are basing it on five.”

But here’s a potential flashpoint: Districts can opt to pay some of the raise as a stipend, rather than add all of the raise to a teacher’s base pay. In the state model, stipends are paid for two factors: serving in leadership roles and meeting the academic needs of students.

That makes Craig Blume, a top labor organizer for the Indiana State Teachers Association, skeptical. If a chunk of a teacher’s raise is potentially one-time money, then their pay rates might not grow at a steady pace toward a comfortable middle-class lifestyle the way they do now.

“The problem with the stipend is it’s a one-time deal,” he said. “If it can be given, it can be taken away.”

Blume fears average teacher pay would fall significantly over the next decade or so. And he questions whether that is the real motive behind some of the reform language.

“Their model does not strike us as user-friendly,” he said, “or teacher-friendly.”

For example, in one state simulation, a school district raises teacher pay by 2.4 percent on average over the prior year with the biggest individual raise, a 7.9 percent increase, going to a teacher making $55,555. The hypothetical teacher was rated highly effective and earned credit for leadership and for serving academic needs. But just 1 percent was added to the teacher’s base pay, moving it up by $584 to $56,139. The rest of the raise was a one-time $3,000 stipend.

That raises questions about whether pay will keep pace with inflation, let alone reward merit.

“This is going to put an anchor on teacher salaries,” Blume said.

Schlegel argues that teachers would be protected because the entire system can be bargained with unions. If teachers want more of the raise added to base pay, they can push for that.

“You, as a teacher, have a collective bargaining voice in how it’s defined and how much it’s weighted,” she said.

But the new collective bargaining rules, Blume said, give a big advantage to school districts. Formal talks can begin only after Aug. 1, and negotiators must enter mediation by October if an agreement isn’t reached, followed by binding fact-finding. Contracts must be done by Dec. 31.

If the process reaches fact-finding, state law says money that often is considered in labor talks, such as cash in rainy-day funds, no longer can be bargained. The compressed timeline, Blume said, may create pressure on unions to cave in if a district insists on a stipend-heavy system.

“They’re going to reduce their costs by not having to pay ongoing compensation,” he said.

In response, the state teachers association is crafting its own model compensation system that it will offer to local unions for their contract proposals. Blume said specifics of the plan aren’t ready yet, but it will comply with state law and better protect teachers.

Among the guidance school districts and unions will need is simply defining some of the categories.

Districts might, for example, give credit for “leadership” to teachers who mentor others or head curriculum review or development efforts. For meeting academic needs, districts could give credit for working in a low-scoring school or teaching in a high-need subject, such as science or foreign language.

But it can be completely different.

One proposed plan

Take Wayne Township Schools, where administrators have built a basic concept for a new compensation system that they’ll take to the negotiating table this fall. Wayne has defined “meeting academic needs” as teacher attendance — those with good attendance get extra credit toward their raises.

Butts, the Wayne Township superintendent, said it didn’t make sense in his district to award credit for teaching a particular subject or in a needy school.

“All of our kids, we believe, have academic needs at varying levels,” he said. “All need to be held to high standards. I’m not prepared to make a determination on whether one subject area is more important to our students in life than another.”

Wayne’s draft plan awards seven points — one each for years of experience, degrees attained, leadership and attendance and up to three points for performance, based on evaluations.

“We wanted to make sure the evaluation piece had the most weight,” Butts said.

Under evaluation, 20 percent of the score is based on student test scores. The rest comes from observations of their work. But using student test scores stirs concerns, even when it’s just 20 percent of one of seven factors.

Autumn Leppert teaches third- and fourth-grade gifted students at Wayne’s Rhoades Elementary School. She’s worried that there isn’t a test that can adequately capture how she affects student learning.

“Some things I hold myself accountable for are creativity, collaboration and critical thinking,” she said. “That’s the expectation of a high-ability teacher. Those things aren’t going to be measured on any assessment.”

Wayne, she said, has gathered teachers in untested grades or subjects to try to craft student test measures that are more fair to them. It’s hard, for example, to measure the impact of music, art, physical education or shop teachers on ISTEP scores.

The district is looking at subject-specific tests or even creating their own tests to try to gauge student growth, Leppert said. But they haven’t figured it out yet.

In fact, there’s a lot that hasn’t been figured out. And that makes her nervous, even though she supports tougher teacher evaluation.

“Its going to be very hairy,” she said. “It’s scary to me we are going to implement this in August, and there are so many things that can’t be answered.”

Leppert, a 13-year teacher, is OK with merit pay for top teachers. She just wishes it were on top of the salary schedule. She likes the predictability of the scales, which allowed her to plan for the future.

“Teachers depend on that,” she said. “I didn’t become a teacher to make a ton of money. But we should be treated as professionals.”

Her great fear, she said, is that teacher salaries will become unpredictable, scaring new teachers away from the profession.

“If I was doing student teaching now, I think I’d run away,” she said. “I don’t think I’d go into teaching today.”

This story originally appeared in the Indianapolis Star on April 8, 2012.

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[…] through their signature education initiative, the Race to the Top grant competition. At least 42 states are home to school districts that have some form of merit pay, and the number continues to grow. […]

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