The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Nashville, Tenn. – They aren’t waiting for Superman.

States, cities and counties, prodded by the White House and impatient politicians, are pushing ahead as fast as they can with efforts to hold public-school teachers and principals accountable for student achievement.

The extent of their efforts was evident last week when the National Center on Performance Initiatives (NCPI) at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education brought educators and academics from across the country together to compare notes and, in a sense, evaluate the teacher evaluations.

The center’s director, Matthew Springer, and colleagues also made headlines with a study suggesting that cash bonuses alone don’t move the needle on student test scores. Their three-year experiment with Nashville middle-school math teachers looked at the impact of bonuses meted out a few months after the state’s annual achievement test for grades 3-8.

The results: Students performed about the same regardless of whether their teacher was eligible for a bonus.

A couple of days later, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan distributed his own rewards: $442 million in grants from the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) to 62 school districts, nonprofit groups and states to further their efforts to overhaul the ways teachers are recruited, evaluated and compensated.

“Nothing is more important than great teaching,” said Duncan, the former Chicago school superintendent. “These grants will help schools build a culture that celebrates excellence in the classroom and helps all teachers improve their practice.”

But will they?

Everyone, or almost everyone, hopes so, but one of the messages from NCPI’s “Evaluating and Rewarding Teacher Effectiveness” conference was that we aren’t quite there yet.

The big push is on so-called “value-added” assessment of teachers – that is, determining how much an individual teacher contributes to his or her students’ learning growth over a year, after adjusting for other factors such as prior achievement and poverty status.


Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal earlier this year signed into law Act 54, which requires that by the 2012-13 school year, “fifty percent of such evaluations shall be based on evidence of growth in student achievement using a value-added assessment model as determined by the board for grade levels and subjects for which value-added data is available.”

Classroom teachers will occupy at least half of the seats on a panel advising the State Board of Regents on how to do this.

Jeanne M. Burns, associate commissioner for teaching and learning, said Louisiana is piloting its evaluation system in 20 districts. Poverty and other factors, as well as test scores, are used to predict each student’s expected growth and determine teacher effectiveness over and above that.

District of Columbia

The Washington, D.C., schools earlier this year fired 5 percent of its teachers and put more than twice that many on notice that they’ll lose their jobs next year unless they improve their “minimally effective” rating. The flip side is that top-rated teachers will reap annual bonuses of $3,000 to $25,000 and make higher salaries.

Jason Kamras, director of human capital strategy and the 2005 National Teacher of the Year, acknowledged that “there is no perfect evaluation system,” but said D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee had lots of evidence on deciding whom to fire.

Drew Gitomer, an expert on teacher licensure and evaluation at the Educational Testing Service (ETS), cautioned against believing that current teacher-evaluation systems in use across the country can “make clear distinctions among most of the teachers.” He said, “The policies are moving out in advance of the research on our understanding of these measures.”


John Tyler, a Brown University economist, has studied Cincinnati’s long-running Teacher Evaluation System (TES) and found a positive relationship between TES scores and student-achievement growth. The system includes classroom observations four times a year by principals and peers. Cincinnati’s past efforts to adopt performance pay were thwarted by its teacher union.

Tyler said the study found that a math teacher’s ability to manage the classroom was more important than his or her instructional practices in raising student achievement.

Austin, Texas

The Austin Independent School District in Texas got the largest share of federal Teacher Incentive Funds – $62.3 million over five years – for its performance pay initiative called REACH, which has been piloted in 15 schools where individuals and teams of teachers earn rewards for gains in student achievement.

The district paid $2.8 million in bonuses this summer to 975 teachers and administrators, who received on average about $2,900. The maximum bonuses were $10,500 for teachers and $15,500 for principals. The federal money will allow the district to expand the program to two dozen more schools concentrated in Austin’s poorest neighborhoods.

The rewards are based not just on student test scores, but also on teachers’ professional development and teacher recruitment and retention in the neediest schools.

Joann Taylor, a REACH administrator, told the NCPI conference, “Our system isn’t based on ranking teachers from high to low. Every teacher can get the incentive … This isn’t about saying, ‘You’re good’ and ‘You’re bad.’ It’s about making everybody better.”

Eagle County, Colo.

Eagle County, Colorado, where half the students are white and half are Hispanic, pioneered performance pay a decade ago, throwing out the traditional, lockstep salary-scale based on years of experience and graduate degrees or credits.

Jason Glass, former human resources director for Eagle County and now a teacher-compensation strategist with the nonprofit Battelle for Kids, said nobody “can say, ‘We’ve got an out-of-the-box, canned approach to this.’”

But it is exciting that “you have so many people trying different things” on teacher evaluation and pay for performance, he added, and in a few years these experiments may produce “a really good system.”

Ft. Worth, Texas

The Fort Worth Independent School District was also a big winner in the TIF competition, snaring $43 million over five years to expand its Public Educators Accelerating Kids (PEAK) Rewards program, now in 15 schools, including nine of its lowest-performing ones. It rewards teachers for teamwork by grade, subject or in entire campuses for accelerating student growth.

In 2008-09, 762 Fort Worth teachers shared $2.4 million in rewards, with teachers pocketing an average of $2,568. The maximum bonus possible for a single teacher was $12,785.

Punita Dani-Thurman, executive director of strategic initiatives for the Forth Worth Independent School district, said Fort Worth had seen little impact on student achievement from an earlier effort to tie pay to performance. But it was moved to try again two years ago when the district put up $5 million to match a $5 million state grant for the experiment with incentives.

Memphis, Tenn.

The Memphis City Schools in Tennessee got a relatively small TIF grant – $9.4 million – to give teachers and principals in the city’s 28 lowest-performing schools incentives to improve. But Memphis last year won a $90 million, six-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to further its Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, which rates teachers on several measures, including observations, scores on the Praxis (the teacher licensing exam) and student test scores.

John Barker, the district’s research and evaluation director, said the teacher union has been a partner from the beginning. “The consensus in Memphis is that we can’t afford to have teachers at the lower end of the spectrum,” said Barker. “Our students deserve better, but our teachers deserve better, too.”

He also described their teacher evaluation measures as a work in progress. “We acknowledge that the first version won’t necessarily be the last,” he said.


Denver is another place that has drawn wide interest with a performance pay system it calls Professional Compensation System for Teachers (ProComp). Shayne Spalten, chief human resources officer for the Denver Public Schools, said teachers can earn up to $16,000 in bonuses, with rewards for those teaching in high-poverty and/or top-performing schools. Teachers earn $6,500, on average, in ProComp incentives each year.

The pay scheme is mandatory for incoming teachers, but most veterans have opted in as well, so the system now covers more than 70 percent of all teachers, Spalten said.

Denver began building its merit-pay system a decade ago with support from foundations. The school board and the teacher union in 2004 both endorsed ProComp, and the following year Denver voters gave their approval as well by enacting an annual $25 million tax increase to finance the bonuses. It is a permanent mill levy adjusted each year for inflation.

Spalten said the bonuses have been a big help with teacher recruitment and retention, but the results have been “more mixed” on improving student achievement.

Model teacher-evaluation systems are scarce

Sabrina Laine, director of the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality at Learning Point Associates, a consulting firm that works with schools on evaluation and teacher preparation, said that despite the pressure on states and districts to tie teacher evaluation to student test scores, “There are not currently very many evaluation systems that can be considered ‘models.’”

Delaware, Georgia and Ohio are further along than other states in redesigning their evaluation systems, Laine said. She also pointed to programs in Hillsborough County, Fla., and Pittsburgh funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the ways that the District of Columbia and Minneapolis now evaluate their teachers.

Still, student test scores are not used in most places as part of teacher evaluations, in part because the only available test scores are for math and English, she said. Nationally, 65 percent of teachers teach subjects or grade levels in which standardized state tests aren’t routinely administered.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *