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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Ten Tips on Pay-for-Performance Reform

How to link teacher compensation to teacher accomplishment -- and a look at a school that makes it work.
By Laura McClure
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Merit pay can sometimes seem like the third rail of educational policy: It's politically dangerous, potentially explosive, and liable to burn anyone who touches it. But now, this powerful controversy is proving to be hard to ignore as salary bonuses and peer review resurface as hot reform topics in 2008.

Pay Points

Below are ten recommendations by principals and other educators on how to implement reform and avoid catching fire:

  • Make sure teachers are competing against mediocrity rather than one another. "A merit system has to incorporate a belief in teacher mentorship and teamwork," explains Hillary Miller, a former public elementary school teacher in Austin, Texas.
  • Ensure that there's enough project funding in the bank to last at least five years, because a great merit-pay system a school can afford to offer for only a short time leads to disillusionment rather than hope.
  • Make sure the size of the committee involved in creating the system and maintaining it is reasonable; too many voices delay decisions. (One teacher says five to seven people is a good rule of thumb.)
  • "Teacher buy-in is a must," reports the Center for American Progress, in Washington, DC. In Chicago, for example, 75 percent of the teachers in a school must vote yes on a pay-structure change before the system can be instituted there.
  • Judge a teacher's effectiveness using agreed-on evaluation tools, not based on how students perform on one test.
  • Engage teachers in the development of an objective, rubrics-based evaluation tool. Try out the tool, and then refine and revise it.
  • Offer at least 15-20 percent of base pay as a potential annual bonus. A teacher's added pay "has to be transformative," says Nínive Clements Calegari, coauthor of Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers. "You can't offer her $500, $2,000. You have to make it worth it."
  • Start with volunteers for the alternate-pay program -- especially new teachers and those with five years of experience or less -- before extending the plan to veteran educators.
  • Continually offer training to new and experienced peer reviewers.
  • Listen to the advice administrators and peer reviewers provide, and solicit ways to improve the program.

Where It Works

Principal Yvonne Chan with students at the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center.

Photo courtesy of Yvonne Chan

One school demonstrating particular success with a merit-pay system like the one outlined above is the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, in Pacoima, California.

Vaughn, a low-scoring public elementary school in its pre-charter school incarnation, implemented many of the reform tips and went on to win numerous accolades, among them a National Blue Ribbon Schools Award. The school won the award, which recognizes outstanding public and private schools nationwide, due in no small part to changes in its teacher-pay structure.

At Vaughn, Principal Yvonne Chan has instituted a system in which teachers can earn an additional $17,000 a year in performance-based bonuses. When you consider that the average elementary school teacher makes about $45,000 a year, it's obvious that that kind of money is a big incentive. "Leaving the district was a no-brainer," says Andy Carbonell of his switch to teaching sixth-grade math at Vaughn after eleven years as an elementary school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"My base pay at Vaughn is virtually identical to the district's," Carbonell points out. "But when you include all the possible bonuses and incentives, my salary is substantially larger."

Chan offers one last tip: "Principals and administrators must opt in first."

Laura McClure is a freelance writer and editor in San Francisco.

Comments (22)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Val Pientka's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

ps Most of the inane decisions I have witnessed over the years have been via principals who have had little or no classroom experience themselves. They have not spent enough time in the classroom to realize it's the relationships with children that are important, not the test scores. Do I really trust that they can make an informed, rational decision with merit pay riding as an outcome for me? Absolutely not! Real teaching occurs after the glow of standardized education wears off. At some point you may experience this. By the way, define 'effective'.

Jaime Avalos Jr. A 6th Grade Student At Vaughn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I asked my teacher Andy Cabonell an he said," I make more money @ Vaughn than in the Los Angeles Unified District because teachers have a chance 2 get a $17,000 bouns." He also says," In the Los Angeles Unified District I made around 45,000
and when I add up the bouns I make a lot more."

Paul M Bowers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Regarding statements made by Val Pientka:

Thus proving the point. Your attitude is clear- give me my money, and the heck with alternate points of view.

Are you afraid of competition? Are you afraid that you are so ineffective as an educator that even with all your hard-fought experience you somehow won't measure up? I doubt that.

Obviously, you are not being given the environment you need to teach in the style and manner you'd like. And, based on your comments, it's clearly not a positive, nurturing environment. But your comments regarding "immature beliefs" will not help your position. Personally, were I an administrator, I would not want to spend an additional nickel on a classroom taught by a teacher with that attitude.

But. I believe the time for salary based on performance is way overdue. In California, we are losing our most energetic (albeit inexperienced) teachers- some young, some older and newly arrived in the profession from the private sector because arcane union contracts demand seniority as the over-arching quality in a teacher. Forget if a teacher is good, effective kind, nurturing, experienced, a mentor- just alive, and been in the system for a long time.

Just like in the private sector, teachers can and should be evaluated by qualified managers, based on the observations *in the classroom* and a series of performance reviews. It's foolish and unfair to try to base salary on test scores, especially when so many parents undermine the teachers at every opportunity.

Yes, we all know veteran teachers who are not effective educators, and Val, I bet you know some as well. What the poster left out is that we all know plenty of fresh faced inexperienced college grads who should not be allowed in the classroom either.

Does that make my comments immature?


T's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"Yes, we all know veteran teachers who are not effective educators, and Val, I bet you know some as well."

She is one. I am a former student of hers. As an adult I'm still in awe of how she treated me and other students -- enough to google her name. I was a quiet student with no enemies and I remember crying after school many times because of the horrible experiences I would have with her, in and out of the classroom. I don't know about this relationship with children she writes of. I can tell you first hand, many of her students thought of her as shrill, cruel and intimidating. Not good for an art teacher. I hope she's changed but, based on her comments here, I doubt it.

JTB's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Remove all teachers unions and Instead of union dues set inplace a system that requires 1.5% of teachers wage to be paid to the school district they are in to supplement the merit pay increases. The two groups that most fear the merit pay or right to work laws are the unions which we don't need and the teachers who we need even less than the unions.
Unions are 75 years past their effective timeline abolish unions in america. Look what they have done to the auto industry. NOT A PRETTY PICTURE.

Selena's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You said "The two groups that most fear the merit pay or right to work laws are the unions which we don't need and the teachers who we need even less than the unions." According to this sentence your opinion is we don't need teachers. I am quite interested to find out what your suggestion is for how people in this country should learn if we don't need teachers?

Bruce Waltuck's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am always interested in comments like the one from JTB. In one short statement, JTB felt the need to soundly criticize both unions (in general) and teachers. So, JTB, why do you feel this way? More important, what real data and facts do you have, that support your opinions? I have worked for more than 30 years in organizational improvement. Several of those years were working on site-based decision-making committees in public schools. Fifteen years in labor-management relations, where I handled hundreds of grievances, arbitrations, and contract negotiations.

We must remember why unions existed originally, and also think about the role of unions today. The basic concept is as it always was - Collective Bargaining. The idea (pretty much universally agreed to be true) that the interests of many, are heard more effectively, than the interest of one. What kinds of things do unions negotiate? Pay is just one issue, but not the only issue. Of great concern to both labor and management are the issues of working conditions - performance appraisal, promotion, etc. Also, it is important to note that one of the largest unionized groups in America can not bargain for pay, and can not strike. These are public employees.

The media occasionally feature people who claim that unions are the reason for problems in America's auto industry. But when we look at the facts (numerous comparative studies in the auto industry, as well as Department of Labor data), the total compensation per hour for union auto workers is not a lot more per hour than the non-union auto workers. Moreover, as one report recently noted, no one ever forced an auto company (or a school system) to sign a collective bargaining agreement. At the time, both parties felt the agreement was viable and represented a fair and reasonable compromise.

Are unions needed today? Yes, though perhaps they need a much more modern point of view. Union leaders and members need to be part of the solution for sustaining the organizations where they work. Whether we talk about schools or auto makers, unions and their members are a key component of long-term success. Management (in schools or auto companies)likewise need to consider the critical issues of concern to the bargaining unit. Pay, job security, health insurance, pension stability, career development - all should be of almost equal importance to both sides.

Thanks, and have a great day.

Jann Spallina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My biggest concern with merit pay is the particular sub groups of students that teachers have are extremely varied. For instance, I typically teach the average-low groups. My scores are great and I would benefit from merit pay, but I have to work much harder to get those scores than the teachers in my building who have the gifted and advanced students. It's not just ability, but attitude and effort of the students depending on their levels of understanding. Typically, I have more missing assignments because my students get frustrated and give up more easily than those advanced students, who are much more motivated. What about the special ed. teachers, who have students who are several years below grade level and probably never will reach grade level? How do you justify merit pay to them, knowing they will never be eligible, even though they are some of the hardest working people on campus?
Merit pay would be beneficial for me, based on my student scores for three years now. However I feel it would hurt the students who aren't top performers because teachers would avoid those classes in favor of students who would more easily show those gains in test scores.

Eliza's picture

I have to agree with you. I worked at Vaughn since the inception of the first charter. I worked long hours and poured my very essence into my job there. I was not alone, everyone there does. The problem was, as a veteran teacher, I stood to loose over 15000 in salary. I had already taken a cut by resigning from the district. I don't understand why, with all the extra $$$$$ from groups like tobacco companies et al, they cannot afford to pay the teachers at least as much as they would earn at the sponsoring district. Surrounding charters do: Fenton, Pacoima, DP.
It is a great place to teach, but hard to pay the bills. There were many teachers who were forced out because they would take a very large cut in pay. They are not mentioned here.

Anthony V. Manzo's picture
Anthony V. Manzo
Professor Emeritus, Literacy Education/Cognitive Psychology

Teacher Education is a bit of a Myth: We are All Complicit & Teachers Cannot YET be held Accountable
It can be argued that there is no such thing as teacher education since there is no such thing as a agreed upon core curriculum of teaching principles and practices. This means that teachers CANNOT be held accountable for student progress. In all likelihood teachers have been denied access to the Best Tools; Teacher Education is all hit and miss. Courses with identical titles can vary very significantly from school to school, and professor to professor. This is a recipe for near chaos, ironically there is no "crisis" in education, and we should not act as if one exists if for no other reason than because CRISIS conjures panic, a search for culprits and competing disruptive reformers with vested interests in everything but education. However, it is past time to take some measured evolutionary steps whose benefits could be globally far reaching.
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