Merit Pay for Teachers: An Alternative Model

Merit pay for teachers, also commonly called ‘pay for performance’ is a huge part of President Obama’s education reform platform (an extension of NCLB) and is an attempt to hold teachers accountable for their students’ performance on standardized state tests. Under this structure, teachers receive merit pay (bonuses) when their students score Proficient or Advanced or in some cases, when teachers take on additional responsibilities like designing curriculum or mentoring new teachers.

My biggest complaint about this structure is that it is ill defined (as are most educational reform efforts). Individual districts get to decide how they measure teachers, who they measure, what amount the bonuses are, how many bonuses they give out, and any other special awards/recognitions teachers get (e.g., the title of Distinguished Teacher). What of teachers who don’t teach tested subjects? What about those who teach students with IEPs? Should they be pitted against teachers with ‘gifted’ students? This model is also limited because it uses students’ test scores as the sole indicator of teacher effectiveness. Anyone who’s ever taught one day in a public school classroom knows this perception is myopic and unfair. There are many indicators of teacher quality far beyond summative test scores. What of pedagogical practices? Classroom climate? And in what world does it make sense to measure effectiveness once per year? Talk about a weighty assessment.

In no other profession is your future employment status determined by meritstandardsomeone else’s performance on a single indicator. Yes, I get that a great teacher should have students with high test scores; however, no matter how great a teacher you are, you can’t control factors like amount of sleep students had the night before the test, student motivation, student effort, the temperature of the testing room, or the fact that the test does not accommodate ELL students or students with unidentified LDs.

In my Education Reform class, the student who chose to lead discussion on merit pay found an alternative model with which I agree. TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement has a 3 pronged approach to evaluating teachers, as well as tiered financial incentives tied to experience and workload. Simply put, teachers are evaluated 50% on 4-6 classroom observations conducted throughout the year by a combination of the principal, master teacher, and mentor teacher—each of whom have been trained to use the TAP rubric. 20% of their evaluation is accounted for by school level performance on summative standardized tests. The remaining 30% is based on the teacher’s classroom performance on standardized tests.

I like this model because the emphasis on a single classroom of students is lessened, pedagogical practices are evaluated by an extremely rigorous rubric (which I can’t share here because it is copyrighted) by multiple qualified entities in the school, and most of all, performance is calculated using a value added growth model. You can see how a value added model is a better measure of teacher effectiveness if you consider the variability in student ability within and between classrooms. If my students begin the year 2.5 grade levels behind in math, it will be much harder for me to get them to Proficient or Advanced than my colleague whose students began the year at grade level. This model recognizes teacher and student achievement growth even if students do not perform at Proficient on a standardized test. In an interview with an elementary school principal whose school uses this, she also added that individual schools set their own growth targets even though TAP has a minimum of 1 year growth and a 2.5 out of 5 in instructional quality to qualify for the bonus.

I also like that there is a predetermined bonus amount for which all teachers qualify so they are not competing against one another for one pot of money (though there is an addendum to this. see below). Finally, I like the encouragement of professional development while remaining a classroom teacher because so often in education, a promotion means leaving the classroom in favor of an office.

And with increased responsibility comes increased financial incentive. At the particular school my class visited last week, classroom teachers could make $2500 extra per year, mentor teachers could make $5000 extra/year and master teachers could make $10,000 extra per year (there is 1 master teacher at this school and 4 or 5 mentor teachers). What is also great is that teachers do not need to achieve targets in all 3 domains to get a bonus. If just my classroom, but not the school makes the growth goal, and I average a 3 out of 5 on my classroom observations I receive 80% of the $2500.

But there are two aspects of this model I dislike. First, let’s say I am one of 10 classroom teachers in my school. Let’s also say that of the 10, only 2 made their classroom test growth goals. The pot of money earmarked for classroom teacher test growth bonus pay is now being divided between the 2 teachers who made their classroom goals which means that even though I have a theoretical max of $750 for my classroom goals (30% of $2500), I could actually get more than that because there is ‘extra’ money in that pot. My issue is that a max should be a max. I don’t think this affects between teacher competition because frankly, 70% of my bonus is still being decided by other factors and 20% of that remaining 70% fosters school-wide collaboration. But still, this rubs me the wrong way.

My second issue with this model is that while I like it for teachers, I don’t like it for administrative and support staff (e.g., principals, counselors, interventionists, literacy coaches, etc). Their model is 50% observation and 50% school performance. So if an entire school fails to make their growth goal, the school counselor’s bonus is now cut in half compared to a classroom teacher who only loses 20% of her bonus despite having more direct influence on students’ learning. I would like this better if all schools (schools choose their model) adopted the 50-20-30 split for everyone where a counselor or interventionist will be evaluated on content knowledge in place of student growth.

My final concern is actually more a concern about reform efforts in general. In my course we talked a lot about scale up and sustainability of reform models. Schools become TAP schools through a grant application process which means that once the grant ends (usually after 4 years), there are no more bonuses, no TAP rubrics to use and no master or mentor teachers funded through TAP (a school can of course have master and mentor teachers but the money to pay them needs to be found elsewhere). Though the principal at the school I visited was confident that the ‘mindset’ of rigorous teaching and learning had been instilled during their 4 years as a TAP school (she said ‘teachers see this rubric and realize, this is just good teaching!’), I remain uneasy about the future of the school’s culture when TAP teachers leave and new teachers enter. I don’t think anyone who becomes a classroom teacher does so because of financial rewards, so I am not worried about the loss of financial incentives. But I am worried about how they will support consistent and strategic good teaching in a cadre of underpaid, overworked new teachers without the very visible carrot outlining how to pull the cart faster and more efficiently regardless of which students are along for the ride.