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PITTSBURGH – They call it the War Room.

It looks like any other classroom inside Carrick High School, a sprawling structure that towers like a stone fortress over this working-class neighborhood on the city’s south side. It’s still dark out as 16 teachers and counselors – some clutching coffee or energy bars – sit in a circle, dissecting with brutal candor their students’ performance.

In addition to their classroom duties, these teachers serve as advisers to every ninth- and 10th-grader in the school, and they show up 45 minutes before school starts each day to talk about where their students need to be. No punches are pulled; no feelings are spared.

As part of the Promise Readiness Corps, these teachers are eligible for financial bonuses.

In Pittsburgh, the Corps is one element of a new plan that overhauls the way the district hires, trains, evaluates, pays and dismisses teachers. Under a new performance-pay system, incoming district teachers whose students learn, on average, at 1.3 times their grade level can earn $100,000 a year within seven years of being hired.

Raising the quality of teaching in America has been a priority of President Barack Obama’s administration, and reforms receiving the most attention right now include stronger teacher evaluation systems and financial incentives to attract, reward and retain quality educators.

Pittsburgh’s efforts, along with those in other cities around the country, could hold lessons for Wisconsin and Milwaukee, primarily because they were accomplished through a collective bargaining agreement.

teacher merit pay
First-graders Roberto Hernandez (front), 6, Alondra Luis (center), 6, and Eugenio Hernandez (back), 7, sit mesmerized during story time at St. Anthony School of Milwaukee. (Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Milwaukee Public Schools will soon step into the performance-pay playground thanks to a new $7.6 million federal grant it received this fall. Details have yet to emerge about what schools and teachers could be involved.

In general, pay-for-performance systems move away from the traditional teacher compensation model – based on years of experience teaching and degrees earned, neither of which consistently correlate with higher student achievement, according to research – and toward a system that rewards those who increase student test scores or take tough assignments at the neediest schools.

But determining teacher effectiveness by looking at growth in student test scores is controversial. Increasingly popular “value-added” assessments attempt to isolate the impact a teacher has on student achievement over a school year, but tests can’t capture every nuance of student progress and 65% of U.S. teachers teach subjects or grade levels in which standardized state tests aren’t routinely administered, said Sabrina Laine, director of the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality at Learning Point Associates, a national nonprofit educational organization.

Reform experimentation

Discussions about strategic compensation reform have been driven in part by economics. Districts have been squeezed financially in the recession, and salaries are the biggest expenditure.

“Seventy-five percent to 85% of a total district’s budget is tied up in personnel,” said Tony Bagshaw, managing director of human capital for Battelle for Kids, a nonprofit that works with districts around the country on school reform efforts.

“If you’re serious about school reform and not at least talking about how you spend 75 to 85% of your budget, then that seems to us to be an omission.”

According to Bagshaw, merit pay systems made some inroads in the 1980s, but fell flat because nobody could quantify teacher performance in the way researchers can now.

The federal government and major philanthropies such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have offered millions of dollars to experiment with reforms that may result in better student achievement. On Friday, Bill Gates urged 50 state superintendents of education to restructure public-education budgets and end teacher pay-increases based on seniority and graduate degrees. He called for rewarding the most effective teachers with higher pay and said those who teach in the neediest schools or take on larger classes should also be paid more.

Pittsburgh’s reforms are collectively part of its Empowering Effective Teachers plan that the district submitted last year to the Gates Foundation. It won a $40 million grant for which the district then had to find matching funds.

This fall, the U.S. Department of Education awarded Pittsburgh $37.4 million, much of which will go toward matching most of the Gates grant.

The district and its teachers union then worked on the plan together and rolled it into contract talks. Those yearlong talks ended in June with a new five-year agreement and labor contract that will enable the district to implement a comprehensive set of changes.

Pittsburgh’s plan

Highlights include:

• Basing teacher pay on multiple measures: student test scores, a school’s overall success meeting yearly benchmarks for educational progress set by the federal government, and teacher performance evaluations.

• A stronger teacher evaluation system, which deploys teams of teachers and administrators in daylong visits to schools every two weeks to analyze teacher performance.

• A requirement that new teachers participate in the performance pay system, though it remains voluntary for veteran teachers.

• A two-tier pay system. Under the new contract – which passed by a wide margin – every teacher in the system will get a raise. Teachers will be eligible for tenure after four years instead of three.

teacher merit pay
LaTosha Ford, 11th-grade chemistry teacher at Pittsburgh Milliones, watches students work on the “problem of the day.” (John Heller)

• Teachers can earn additional pay by assuming various leadership roles within their schools, such as serving on the Promise Readiness Corps or teacher-leadership cabinets that meet weekly to craft school policy.

Though Pittsburgh remains a tough union town – past contract talks were bare-knuckled donnybrooks punctuated by posturing and threats – the new deal was marked by collaboration. Lawyers were barred from the negotiating table. Conversations replaced demands.

In the District of Columbia, former Chancellor Michele Rhee used a big stick to get the changes she sought in teacher tenure, seniority and pay. She purged the system of hundreds of teachers she deemed ineffective.

In Pittsburgh, Superintendent Mark Roosevelt has accomplished much of the same with an olive branch. Roosevelt says he agrees with Rhee that some teachers should be run out of the system. He just doesn’t think mass firings should be the centerpiece of a teacher-quality plan.

Around the country, other districts and states are figuring out how to alter traditional salary systems or offer performance incentives to teachers.

Pay reforms elsewhere

Some of the efforts underway in other states include:

• The Austin Independent School District in Texas won federal grant money to reward teachers for gains in student achievement, as well as professional development, and taking jobs in the neediest schools.

• The Fort Worth Independent School District won $43 million from the federal Teacher Incentive Fund to expand its rewards program. It allows teachers to earn rewards for working in teams to accelerate student growth. The teams can be across grades and subjects or, in some cases, for every teacher in the school.

• Schools in Denver, Colo., have had a teacher incentive program for 11 years. Brad Jupp, one of the architects of that program who is now a senior program adviser at the U.S. Department of Education, has said that since then, more teachers in Denver meet quality standards and district performance has improved academically.

• In Washington, D.C., Rhee, the former chancellor, overhauled the evaluation system and fired teachers who received poor performance reviews. As part of the new contract negotiated with the union, teachers that ranked “highly effective” on the new evaluation tool can earn bonuses of up to $25,000, and teachers can qualify for permanent base-pay raises as well.

• The union representing teachers in Baltimore Public Schools, close in size to Milwaukee with 82,000 students, signed off on a contract last week that restructures teachers’ base pay system. Instead of automatic “step” increases each year, teachers will receive raises based on the results of their evaluations and professional development they undertake. Graduate credits are de-emphasized and superior evaluations help teachers advance faster up the salary scale.

Unions remain skeptical

Despite national pressure to reform teacher compensation systems, many union leaders and teachers remain skeptical. The latest and largest study on pay-for-performance added to their concerns. Conducted by National Center on Performance Initiatives at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, the three-year trial awarded bonuses of up to $15,000 for middle school math teachers whose students test scores rose faster than projected.

The study found no difference in student gains between teachers eligible for bonuses and those ineligible.

“It’s a shell game,” said Dan Lotesto, a teacher at Rufus King High School who remains strongly opposed to performance-pay systems. “It creates artificial conditions that can only lead to justified resentment. You’re not going to find a teacher who says, ‘I’m holding back until there’s “ performance pay.’

Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association President Mike Langyel believes tying teacher salaries to growth in test scores will encourage “teaching to the test.”

Also, he said, sustainable pay-for-performance and incentive systems require an infusion of funds. Districts in Ohio such as Toledo and Cincinnati, he said, are struggling to carry on their reform models because the well is running dry on funding.

Despite the concerns, MPS is slated to implement its own pay-for-performance experiment in 2011 with the help of a $7.6 million federal grant it received this fall. Langyel said the union is willing to see if the reform effort will help students, but that he’s still skeptical of using value-added measures to determine teacher pay or bonuses.

Bagshaw, from Battelle for Kids, said extra pay for good test scores alone will never help children in the absence of more comprehensive teacher quality reform efforts.

“If this is not part of a comprehensive school improvement strategy, you’re wasting your time,” Bagshaw said. “It has to be about professional development, and it has to be about teacher evaluations and communication. It has to be about quality data. Those things all have to work hand in hand to have any success.”

Christopher Connell contributed to this story, which appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on November 21, 2010.

About this series

For the series “Building a Better Teacher,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s education reporting team of Amy Hetzner, Erin Richards and Becky Vevea collaborated with staff of The Hechinger Report and Alan J. Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy at the Marquette University Law School.

Over eight Sundays, the series will spotlight challenges to the way teachers are trained, evaluated, paid, promoted and dismissed – and how all of it comes to bear on student success.

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Letters to the Editor

9 Letters

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  1. Perhaps the following observations will be of interest.

    Placing almost exclusive emphasis upon test-score improvement as a basis for rewarding teachers is patently unfair and, when coupled with inadequate performance-appraisal systems, drives teachers toward unethical behavior or departure to other pursuits.

    A primary reason the public has not been more supportive of higher funding for education has been the poor relationship between better funding and higher educational quality as revealed by a number of studies. Use of an appraisal system based upon the following guidelines should go a long way toward turning things around:

    Those associated with schools, need to fairly identify true “stars” and “inadequate performers” as one of the bases for:

    justifying good pay for outstanding teachers,

    providing for self-guidance on the part of newcomers and present staff,

    and providing an important basis for terminating those who cannot, or will not, measure up.

    Research findings show that performance raters achieve much better agreement about who are Stars and Inadequate Performers than they do about who are Average, Above-Average, and Below-Average performers. Yet, placing individuals in the middle-three categories is a time-consuming, often arbitrary, and resentment-causing activity that most raters dislike having to do, and those in the middle will prefer being referred to as valued team members. Also, clearly, an average performer in a superior organization deserves more recognition than an average performer in an inferior one. No wonder that many teachers and their unions oppose conventional merit-rating systems!

    To avoid a popularity contest, assure greater fairness, and provide for constructive self-guidance, there should be behavioral documentation for both Star and Inadequate Performer nominations via the Critical Incident Technique.
    To lay the groundwork for this, students, parents, veteran administrators, and experienced teachers should be polled in separate groups as to what specific, observable behaviors they associate with outstanding and inadequate performance for each important aspect of a teacher’s job.

    Then, required behavioral documentation for Star and Inadequate-Performer nominations from fellow teachers, adminstrators, students, and parents should be based upon the most agreed-upon behaviors, and the agreed-to relative weights that should be assigned to these, as determined by an administration committee.

    The results of this analysis can also constructively guide the initial selection of teachers, as well as, provide a much-needed, qualifying context for the currently over-stressed evaluation factor of test-score-improvement.

    This approach also sets the stage for more productive review sessions between the rater and ratee. Since the ratee has a sound basis for self-rating, the session should start with the rater asking “How do you rate yourself for this past period through the presentation of relevant, supporting behaviors?” No rater can be all-knowing, so if behaviors are mentioned that she or he is not aware of, the rater can postpone giving his or her evaluation to provide time to check out the validity of the assertions, if this seems necessary.

    A sound behavioral basis for rating also facilitates the use of motivational goal setting during the review session. For example, if the ratee wants to be a Star, what specific behavioral goals does she or he plan to adopt by such and such a time? If stardom is not the goal, which specific, Inadequate Performer behaviors will he or she need to avoid? This approach permits a rater to be more of a counselor and coach, than one who appears to sit in arbitrary judgment.

    For discussion of relevant research and related citations, see: “Improving Performance Appraisal Systems” by William M. Fox, NATIONAL PRODUCTIVITY REVIEW, Winter 1987-88, pages 20-27. If you will email your “snail-mail” address, I will be happy to send a copy of this article plus some other material that may be of interest.


    William Fox
    Professor Emeritus
    Department of Management
    University of Florida
    5200 SW 25th Blvd., #2210
    Gainesville, FL 32608
    (352) 376-9786

  2. Any teacher who would take “Pay for performance” is a fool and is interested neither in school reform nor education. Pay for performance is a cheap and easy way to deprofessionalize education so that anyone can walk off the street and do it. Let’s begin paying cops better for the job they do, how about paying lawyers only for cases they win, how about deducting pay from doctors when patients die, how about deducting pay from every judge when someone they let go commits another crime? This whol argument is ludicous and has no merit.

  3. The Vanderbilt/RAND study referenced in the article doesn’t so much demonstrate that performance pay doesn’t work in principle, only that it doesn’t seem to work on the existing teacher population in public schools.

    It’s frustrating that nowhere in the study did the researchers address the fact that the participants may not — in fact, likely are not — motivated by money at all. Given the prevalence of step-in-grade salary structures in public education, schools will select for — whether upon initial hire or through attrition — employees who wish to trade job security and lack of performance scrutiny for insignificant pay increases. In the pay structure I work under, the raise I get from moving from a first year teacher to a second is less than $600 a year, barely a one percent increase. After withholdings, it comes out to about $30 a month. In the real world, when I was a compensation manager, we recognized that as a prime example of how money can be the greatest demotivator. Obviously, anyone who sticks around in our school system for more than a few years — no matter the performance level — is not interested in compensation as a factor in job satisfaction and incentives.

    So it surprises me the researchers did not factor this into their study. All they’ve shown is that it’s possible pay for performance doesn’t work with the existing teacher ranks. And seeing that it’s the performances of the existing teacher ranks under intense criticism, this seems to be a glaring flaw in the study.

    Consider a similar study in New York ; the researchers there seemed to be missing the obvious: “In each of these reports, the authors noted that the design of the program was flawed in some way. Teachers weren’t paid enough or they were not paid individually or some other part was not well conceived.”

    Or maybe, just maybe, they don’t care about the money? What’s most puzzling about the RAND/Vanderbilt project is that one of the researchers, Dale Ballou, has done quite a bit of research on who is motivated by pay and who is not. Why did he not factor this into the parameters or at least the conclusions of the study? I wonder what they would have found if they had included a group of teachers who showed the earmarks of being motivated by bonuses? Personality tests can identify these people. What if they selected out a group of career switchers who had performed well in jobs using merit pay?

    My observations from within the system — after having worked outside it for many years in energetic, goal-oriented work environments — is that the fact that most teachers are not motivated by the factors accompanying performance pay (job security, performance feedback and coaching, performance goals, collaboration, meaningful professional development, to just name a few) is directly connected to the reasons why learning achievement is poor.

    And, of course, none of those components of performance pay in the real world were included in the RAND/Vanderbilt project. Another glaring flaw.

    What this means for those of us willing to experiment with new ways to incent teachers and improve learning achievement, is that we must admit that most of the existing teachers will be unsuccessful under any real performance pay system. But that doesn’t mean that the pay system is wrong, it may mean that we need different teachers.

  4. Hi: there is other considerations that need to be thrown on the table, before all the teachers are thrown under the school bus.

    Over past decades, all students knew that their job was to go to school and to learn. That seems to have disappeared for many (no, not all, but a notable amount of the student population). This is a problem from the home that teachers have to deal with…when it is possible to spend up to 95% of your time on managing students instead of teaching, learning achievement falls off.

    Secondly, as a career changer with a handful of years in teaching now, I don’t expect to get rich. I do expect to be able to provide for my family, however. Do advanced degrees make you a better teacher? They should…either in education, so you know how to teach better, or in content, so you actually teach updated, correct information; so, yes, teachers should receive compensation for this, especially as it is a requirement in most states, either the advanced degree, or consistent, perennial continuing education/professional development…something not usually required in other fields, certainly not in my several decades in manufacturing. Also, realize that the teachers are having to pay for this advanced education, usually, out of their own pockets.

    Why do teachers stay? As alluded to in earlier responses, not the money…frequently it is to share their love of their subject matter, as well as to work toward a better future for their students.

    One other note, from a teacher in another state, who was reflecting on the pay for growth scenario: she taught advanced courses, so she usually had high-achievers in her classes, so they stayed high-achievers…she could not show significant growth with this population, so her state did not reward her…seems like an inherent failure with the pay-for-performance system.

    I love what I am doing, my students love to come to my classroom, and eventually realize that they are learning more than they think, so I will continue to do my best for them.

    (signed) Walking determination for a better future.

  5. I am a teacher in Baltimore City. My peers recently passed the proposed new contract, eventually tying pay to student achievement and self leadership. I voted against it.

    I’ve been teaching for 30 years and love what I do – teaching preschool children with disabilities. I feel I make a difference in the classroom and with my students’ parents. I give my all everyday, try to make learning fun and exciting, while also trying to meet my students at their level and moving them toward grade level standards.

    Unfortunately, I will not be paid for giving my all, working extra hard to figure out the appropriate skills to teach with the most appropriate methods. My district now wants me to prove myself, by taking extra classes (done that), lead committees (been there) and collaborate with other teachers (do it now, and other teachers get credit for initiating or creating materials). I never complained before. But for some reason I find myself complaining now. Because my future depends on how “vocal” I can be, how I present myself in a positive light to others, or for actually being involved in activities that have nothing to do with actually teaching my students.

    I see myself resenting other teachers already, because I know they will become “model” or “lead” teachers not entirely based on their teaching ability. Anyone can have great achievement in their classrooms, it’s called “teach to the test”.

    Personally, I want my children to name the common objects found around them, answer a simple who/what question in an intelligible sentence, and count objects (just point to objects and count). Learning letters, reading sight vocabulary, naming numerals and making sets, following 3-step directions, and understanding higher-level positional concepts like behind/in front and beside come much later.

  6. Perhaps merit pay will do for teachers what Curt Flood did for baseball players. Imagine the inflated income the star teachers will receive when George Steinbrenner type superintendents offer performance pay contracts. Make a $100,000 dollars in a few short years? Pishshaw! Make $200,000 a year after a few short years teaching. Just be sure to choose the right school districts and schools to apply to and you too can achieve the American Dream and make as much money as a baseball player–many of whom have not yet earned an undergraduate degree much less a graduate degree. After I retire in a few years after 40 years of teaching high school and having earned my National Board Certification, I intend to open a charter school for star teachers and act as their agent as I negotiate merit pay contracts for all of them asking only for a tiny 10% commission in return. Happy days are here again for star teachers! And, for star teacher charter schools! (Bill Gates, expect my grant proposal soon after I retire. A few paltry millions will I only need to open up my star teacher charter school. I mean who cares if three million dollars could be used to hire 60 teachers at $50,000 per because class size has shown not to be a significant effect on student achievement.)
    Students, I know you may feel your needs to be a critical thinker and thoughtful citizen may be overlooked in the merit pay scheme, but I know you will soon be able to pass a multiple choice exam every year of your life because of Merit Pay!! Perhaps these multiple choice exams will be used as a basis for your own merit pay once you go into the real world. Think of the possibilities ahead of you as you become a wiser and wiser multiple choice test taker. The sky is the limit in your future based on your well earned merit pay, too!
    There is only a minor drawback to merit pay that I can see on the distant horizon. You 20% of students in the poverty bracket, I’m sorry, but I doubt that star teachers will be applying to your school districts. There is just not enough monetary incentive for star teachers to teach you. Because of unfair funding by the state that you live in, there is little money to be gotten from your parents as tax payers to be used to attract these free agents. Although you may think merit pay will unjustly condemn you and your children to poverty, that’s just not true. I think.

  7. Another thought, as Southside Mike reminded me…since Mr. Gates feels that smaller classes don’t help (which I greatly disagree with), why doesn’t he really learn about education, by doing a “Tony Danza” and going into the classroom for a year or three…then he can speak with some knowledge of what it takes on a daily basis…something he does not have now, and cannot get any other way. Until those who are making the decisions get refreshed on what the classrooms are really like, there will not be any major changes of benefit for the students.

    Myra’s points are clear as well…the only changes I see are which tests are we teaching toward; not the best change I can imagine. Also, those who “present” best will be rewarded, not necessarily those “draft horses” who are actually pulling the load.

    One other problem with the merit pay deal: how long do you give entering teachers to “get up to speed?” It would be insane to expect them to be utterly awesome teachers right out of school, so what kind of “trial period” would they get? Something else to ponder….

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