Putting Education Reform To The Test

Why Orange County’s Teacher Pay Experiment Failed

Reading Monday’s RAND Corporation study of New York City’s scrapped teacher merit pay system sounded an awful lot like an interview we had last week with Orange County Superintendent Ronald Blocker and his district’s experience with pay-for-performance last decade.

Like all Florida school districts, Orange County is designing a state-mandated merit pay system that bases half a teacher’s performance on standardized testing scores. But Blocker told us his district’s trial run that paid teachers an incentive to work in high-need schools — typically the poorest and lowest-performing schools — did not work.

The reasons Blocker cited were similar to failings in New York City that RAND identified: Teachers did not believe in the system, in part, because they are motivated by more than pay. Blocker said teaching is a calling, and that teachers who do not want to work in troubled schools are not likely to do so because they could earn up to $6,000 more each year.

“Merit pay wasn’t very popular,” Blocker said. “They would work there until they achieved tenure, then they would find some reason to work at a school closer to their home.

“Whatever made you unhappy in the first place is still there, and I think that’s where merit pay misses it. It doesn’t tap the missionary zeal in that teacher.”

Blocker is more optimistic about the plan the district and Orange County teachers have worked out. The failed Orange County plan, he said, had some significant differences from a true merit pay system. Funded by a federal Race To The Top grant, the in-the-works Orange County merit pay plan would base 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on standardized test scores and the other half on Learning Sciences International’s Marzano model.

This time may be different, Blocker said, because teachers are involved and telling the district how they would like to be measured. RAND’s report noted that the lack of teacher “buy-in” was a key reason the $56 million NYC plan failed.

“I’m hoping this approach we’re taking through the Race To The Top will find an effective way to do it,” Blocker said, “because we’ve played at it the last 30 or 40 years…It’s a great soundbite, but it’s not working.”


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