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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

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 and a member of The George Lucas Educational Foundation's National Advisory Council. "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

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Glen Bledsoe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

So tell me, what happens if you've already been working as hard as you can all along? I don't know of any teacher who's been holding back, so I'm guessing we're going to all be in the same position. Somewhere I read that a merit-based pay system was tried in England in the past and the result was massive cheating.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is another step toward the corporatization, and homogenization, of education. I teach upper level high school students in Physics and Chemistry; as a result, I see the consequences of a focus on passing tests and achieving standards rather than promoting exploration and curiosity for kids at the lower grades. For example: my wife teaches 4th grade science and language arts in another district, and has been told to reduce the breadth and depth of her curriculum in favor of, you guessed it, teaching to the test. Gone are the hands-on science kits, gone is participation in the amateur astronomy group, gone is the joy of watching a young mind turn on to the possibilities of exploration. In its place are a focus on getting the right answers, the ongoing litany of "is this gonna be on the test" (from both students and, sadly, administrators), and an endless series of science fair projects that have been repeated by 4th graders since I was in school. And yet, several teachers in her school, my wife included, would earn merit pay based upon the achievement of their students and their ability to follow the rules!

Our district has exceptional achievement on standardized tests, students perform as expected and are taught according to the rules, at least the latest version emerging from the education schools. As a consequence, when they arrive in my classroom they seek correct answers (rather than attempting to understand the implications of their own findings), are unable to design laboratory activities (unless they are given canned recipes from the often-error filled textbook), and, when confronted with a challenging, inquiry-based curriculum, they cast about like fresh-caught flounder on the docks! An example: We are involved in a competition to design cars and bridges for testing at a local university, a project which should, in theory, involve students in researching designs, testing prototypes, and eventually arriving at innovative solutions to real world problems. In the brave new world of standards-based education and pay for performance, however, students have become much more dependent on the teacher (me) to refine (and reality check) their designs, prod them incessantly about reaching deadlines, and cajole them relentlessly in order to get them to attempt a project that, if done well, could earn them at worst a day away from school on a college campus and at best a $100 prize. We even have had to pay these kids (with a raffle for an IPod, food, you name it) in order to get them to take the proficiency tests seriously.

Thinking has become an optional activity in our schools, and the twin scourges of standards and merit pay are largely to blame. While the corporate model may be enticing to those outside of education, and while the carrot of merit pay and National Board Certification has enticed some organizations within the national education community, the real effect of these types of reforms is to reduce the achievement expected of, and demonstrated by, our students. Merit pay reduces the likelihood of innovation in education, as few teachers are willing to risk their chances for earning merit pay by attempting to reach children and push them to achievement in alternative, innovative ways. By promoting the refinement of the status quo, we, as educators, are left in the unfortunate position of the Lakota after the Ghost Dance movement of the late 19th century. . . The reason for their failure, and ours, is the inability to perfect the "dance" of education, and only the best dancers will get the additional pay for their performance. The real losers in all of this are the children who have been miseducated under its hegemony.

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