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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

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work in a public school in what is considered a "red apple" district. Schools have 70% on welfare. My school is not a low performing one, but we are in a district that is considered low performing. Within the framework of staff and students, teachers are still given disporportionant numbers of low performing students. If test scores are tied to a teacher's performance, this is highly unfair. There is no way a student who is at risk and two grade levels below can bring it up to the NoChildLeftBehind standards. How will a principal fairly assess if a teacher is entitled to merit pay when his or her class is "stacked" with this kind of student, Another teacher may have a balance of those who are at risk, those at grade and those above grade.Their test scores are going to look much better.

On contract teachers are paid for seven hours a day. I often put in 10.
Your article on the charter school shows monies being offered if there is improvement. What if your district has no extra money?

Leonard Isenberg's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The 800 lbs. gorilla in the classroom that is not addressed by merit pay is the continuing practice of social promotion. Far less expensive than merit pay is placing your most seasoned teachers in a timely manner with students who are having more difficulty meeting grade level standards, rather then dumping them on the new teachers who have neither the seniority nor skill to deal with them.

The reality of human brain development clearly shows that there is a limited window of opportunity in adequately stimulating brain development- all the king's horses and all the king's men will not give you a second chance in middle or high school if you fail to adequately develop the brain in elementary school and before.

60% of the students applying for admission to the junior college system in Los Angeles need remediation in math and English as is measured by required placement examinations which they must take and pass before being allowed to take junior college courses. And yet the Los Angeles Unified School District continues to enroll students in Algebra even though they clearly cannot perform the foundational basic math skills necessary to be successful in Algebra.

If the political agenda of big city school districts was made subservient to a more pragmatic approach to addressing students measurable deficits in a timely manner, then merit pay might be appropriate for the teacher heroes that would be faced with the daunting task of fixing the premeditated mistakes of this presently politically driven public education system.

WI teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If done correctly, I think merit pay would be awesome. We all know veteran teachers who are not effective educators. Should they be earning $40,000 more than an effective teacher with less experience?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I couldn't agree with you more. I am acutally an ex-employee of the charter school mentioned in this article and am happily working for LAUSD. There are many more of us no longer working at the charter school that are very happy working for the district. There are so many things not mentioned about performance based pay in this article. Did they mention the teacher turn over rate or teacher retention rate at this school? They interviewed one person from the school, what about the teachers that are no longer there? Performance based pay is not the answer. Parent involvement and experienced, dedicated teachers are.

Brandon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm a student at Allegheny College conducting a study on merit pay. I've been having a lot of trouble trying to find information on individual school districts that offer merit pay. If you know of a public high school that has recently adopted a pay for performance/incentive system, could you please email the name of the district and location. Thanks for the help



Mercedes Ofalt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that some of us are missing some key issues here - we do not HAVE to teach to the test! We can still involve the students in problem solving and creative thinking skills! In fact, I feel it should be encouraged!!!!! Those students will still be ultimately prepared for those standards-based tests if we are providing them with novel lessons and fun learning activities; however, they will also gain background knowledge and content that "teaching to the test" cannot possibly give them.
In the article, merit pay does not necessarily mean: student does well on test, teacher gets check; it should mean (in a well-run system) that there are many balanced factors put into a formula and weighed, so that all are given equal opportunities at the "prize"!
Perhaps those of you who are so ready to throw in the towel at the idea of a world where pay for performance enters into the school system, shouldn't be teaching at all! In my experience it is you who are also the ones who ARE teaching to the test and are too tired to do anything else anymore!

Nathaniel C Banks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a school board member, I was going to forward this article to my Board as an "fyi", until I realized that merit pay was coming from a charter school. Since the notion of charter schools is anathema in our neck of the woods, I won't even waste my time forwarding the post. I would, however, like to comment on the "comments". I come from a community where 70% of the Black families are low income. So where do those students get "stacked"? Who is to teach them, and what should the expectations be? Based on the recent Supreme Court ruling which in effect hastens the re-segregation of our schools, they will be "stacked" where they won't affect the "normal" children and their families.

For those of us in the business of wanting all children to have a chance at success, I contend that the real 800 pound beast in the room is the notion that the public schools are in-fact, already fullfilling their mission. And that current attempts to change the system must be fought vigorously. This writer believes that there is evidence suggesting that education for the masses was never intended to actually "educate", but to prepare people for the stratified positions that they were expected to take once leaving school. Any attempt whether genuine or disengenuous proporting to materially change this paradigm must be vigorously opposed. So, even if the rather benign notion of setting a reasonable pay for service and then giving financial incentative to those who excell at providing that service is proposed, it must be fought at every point because such a notion might actually help change the order of the society. And that, unfortunately apprears to be un-American.

If nothing else, these initiatives which generate only moderate success when major overhauls and improvements are needed may at some point lead a segment of our society to push for the dismantling of public education as we know it and replacing it with people and systems who will truly educate the public, not just the affluent.

Jake's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Brandon, under a system called ATPPS (Alternative Teacher Performance Pay System), many MN public school districts now have systems in place. Off hand, you could take a look at St. Cloud, MN or Wayzata, MN. I'd search the web using ATPPS and MN or look at the state department of ed's website.

John Norton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Most of the debate about how performance-pay might be designed to improve teaching and learning has taken place without deeply engaging teachers in the discussion.

One notable exception: the TeacherSolutions report by members of the Teacher Leaders Network published last spring. The report's four pillars for incentive pay offer a nuanced approach based on the perspectives of a group of outstanding teachers who know how school really works and where incentives for change would have the greatest impact. Here's a link to the report: http://snipurl.com/tsreport

Val Pientka's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"We all know veteran teachers who are not effective educators."
First of all, your rude comment is not welcomed by this very veteran teacher. Here is the piece that you will learn over the course of your career. The intrusion by misinformed and misguided politicians, administrators, parents and many others who will shape your professional destiny through their poor decisions that have important implications for not only student learning but also for your teaching conditions will seriously impact and at times unfortunately impede your success as a teacher. I have taught for 30 years and love my profession. I am a middle school art teacher and currently have 400 too many kids. My building is bursting at the seams with kids. The administration has expanded the academics, via mobiles, but has chosen to keep the same staff for non-academic courses. There is no relief in sight.
I teach a new group of students every 3, 5 and 6 weeks. This is assembly line teaching at its worst. At different points during my career, I have taught art without water and I have also taught art on a cart. Now, you tell me how this one size fits all merit pay concept could possibly effectively or fairly address my all too familiar to many situation. Until there is equity in public education, don't spout your immature beliefs my way.

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