WASHINGTON — While the words “merit pay” drew hisses and boos at a recent teachers’ union convention, educators are endorsing contracts that pay bonuses for boosting students’ test scores.
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers oppose linking a teacher’s paycheck to how well their students do on tests. But that is not stopping Rob Weil, the AFT’s deputy director of educational issues, from helping local unions hammer out contracts that include new merit-pay plans.
“We don’t have a message on a board that says, ‘Hey, thinking about this?”’ he said. But he said the AFT feels obliged to assist chapters that have decided to go this route.
Teachers usually are paid according to a century-old career ladder that rewards seniority and levels of education. The system was designed to ensure fair compensation for women and minorities. The average starting salary today is about $31,000.
“They don’t make enough money, especially the good ones — especially the great ones,” said Louis Malfaro, the teachers’ union president in Austin, Texas, where nine schools are part of a pilot program to overhaul how teachers are paid.
Malfaro said Austin’s approach is modeled partly on Denver’s, which links salaries to students’ test scores and other measures. Malfaro says the Austin effort will expand slowly and be evaluated methodically to avoid the kinds of mistakes made elsewhere.
“Our approach has been a slow, deliberate and steady one,” Malfaro said. “This is a highway with wrecked cars all over it.”
Florida recently had to retool a merit-pay plan after a large number of districts opted out, citing teacher concerns. A plan in Houston came under criticism because it was put in place over teachers’ objections.
Vanderbilt University education professor Jim Guthrie said the involvement of teachers is essential.
“I just put myself in their shoes. All of a sudden you are going to change all the rules and you’re not going to talk to me?” said Guthrie, who is assisting districts that got federal grants to implement merit pay.
Weil, the AFT official, said teacher compensation has to be bargained locally. He also said the new plans should make good professional development available to increase the chances that teachers will raise students’ achievement.
Union opposition to merit pay stems partly from failed efforts of the 1980s. In those cases, principals generally were given the power to decide who would get the additional dollars.
“They often had no basis of any objective measure of performance,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “So what sometimes happened is there would be different awards made to different individuals and they would become public, and people would be appalled at the individuals who were given the awards or not given the awards.”
The 2002 No Child Left Behind law has placed a greater emphasis on using objective data in schools.
The law requires annual math and reading tests. The scores of students in certain grades are compared year to year. Lawmakers want to change the law, which is up for renewal, to encourage schools to measure individual student progress over time instead of using snapshot comparisons of certain grade levels.
Once schools track that, they could look at which teachers consistently are moving students along, say children’s advocates. Some places, including Tennessee, already are doing this.
But teachers say many factors affect test scores, including some that are beyond their control; for example, family income and level of parental involvement.
While individual student scores already are tied to teachers’ pay in Denver and elsewhere, Austin’s program relies on test scores to reward all teachers for school-wide gains.
Johnson, the Harvard professor, said that is fair. “It’s becoming clear to do math well, you have to read well. So if students do well in math, do you give that math teacher the bonus? Or do you give that bonus to the reading teacher two years before?”
Malfaro said Austin’s approach will encourage teachers to collaborate instead of competing. To further encourage that, some teachers will serve as mentors. As in Denver, principals and teachers will work together to set goals at the start of the year.
“If this is just about making money a different way and isn’t about forcing systemwide change, then I think it fails to live up to its potential,” Malfaro said. “Then I think it’s just going to be one more education fad that kind of came up, got kicked around for a few years, and then faded out. And that would be a shame.”
The Austin school board approved more than $4 million annually to fund the pilot program. A districtwide plan would cost at least $30 million annually, which voters would have to approve, Malfaro says.
A study of the pilot program in Denver, before it was expanded, showed that the changes improved student achievement. That probably helped persuade voters to support a $25 million-a-year tax increase to pay for expanding it to the entire school system.
The federal government, foundations and states also are helping finance new teacher-pay programs.
The chairman of the House education committee, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., says he wants the revised No Child Left Behind law to include money for a new merit-pay effort.
Among states, Minnesota is out front on the issue. The Minnesota Legislature passed a law two years ago encouraging districts and teachers to develop new pay plans, partly linked to student test scores.
There is excitement about the change in the three dozen or so districts that have undertaken it, says Randi Kirchner, professional pay systems coordinator for Education Minnesota, a union that operates at the state level.
Kirchner acknowledges some national union leaders do not support pay plans linked to student scores. But she says the Minnesota system is more acceptable than some others because student scores are just one of many measures used and teachers have a strong say in whether the new plans are put in place and what they look like.
“We didn’t just sit on the sidelines,” she said. “We chose to be actively involved, so Minnesota would have a workable system that focuses on the best ways to improve teaching and learning.”
“I just put myself in their shoes. All of a sudden you are going to change all the rules and you’re not going to talk to me?”