Putting Education Reform To The Test

Merit Pay Could Mean Big Rewards for Florida Teachers

Joe Raedle / Getty News Images

Teacher hold signs thanking former Gov. Charlie Crist for vetoing a bill that included pay-for-performance in 2010. The requirement is now state law and districts are beginning to implement plans.

The best Miami-Dade teachers could buy a new car with their bonuses this year while most of their colleagues may only be able to replace an alternator with their bonuses.

The difference in the size of those checks is an attempt to pay teachers based on their performance and that of their students, also known as merit pay, and part of a national experiment  to answer a decades-old question: How can school districts motivate teachers to improve?

The experiment involves two issues: What’s the best way to determine which teachers are the most effective; and creating a new pay structure to reward good performance, encourage teachers to improve and draw top students into the field. Florida is one of a handful of states that have required districts to develop pay-for-performance programs, putting them in place by 2014.

Florida districts have taken varying approaches to the problem. Miami-Dade schools are offering their best teachers a chance to win big, offering a few bonuses as much as $25,000 while many other teachers get smaller bonuses of $500. Hillsborough County and Orange County are taking a more tiered approach, with bonuses which can vary from several hundred dollars to more than two thousand dollars depending on how an instructor scores on a highly detailed rating system.

Experts said they expect a lot of trial and error from school districts over the next few years, much of which will be funded by a federal Race To The Top grant.

“We know the current way in which we compensate teachers…is an incredibly inefficient way to be spending our resources on education,” said Matthew Springer, director of the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University which conducted the first formal merit pay study. “The problem is we don’t know what a better way is. The research is rather thin.”

Traditionally, teachers are paid according to a tiered scale based on their years of service. Teachers typically earn more if they have an advanced degree or earn certain certifications. Performance pay varies, but the general idea is that better-rated teachers can move up the pay scale more quickly while lower-rated teachers are rewarded with smaller bonuses or earn less.

Paying teachers based on their performance has been discussed for a half century, but so far two National Center on Performance Incentives studies of programs in Nashville and New York City concluded neither program resulted in student gains. The Nashville program paid bonuses of up to $15,000 based on individual middle school math teachers’ performance, while the New York City program split smaller bonuses among instructors based on the entire school’s performance.

“The problem is we don’t know what a better way is. The research is rather thin.”

-Matthew Springer, director of the National Center on Performance Incentives

Supporters – such as University of Arkansas professor Gary Ritter – argue merit pay will increase salaries long-term and entice better teaching talent.

Critics, such as Doug Tuthill, director of the private school scholarship group Step Up For Students, argue merit pay experiments are destined to fail because they do not change the fundamentals of a government-run school system.

“I think it’s a waste of time,” Tuthill said, arguing for a complete overhaul of the education system that gives more control to parents. “At the end of the day your productivity gains are going to be minimal at best.”

One other long-term problem: Lawmakers have not set aside money to pay for the merit raises, which are expected to raise teaching salaries significantly. For now, districts are relying on federal money, or as the case with Hillsborough County, an outside grant from the Gates Foundation.

Lawmakers required each of Florida’s 67 school districts to develop merit pay plans last spring. Indiana, Ohio and other states have approved or are considering similar requirements. Many teachers object to what they consider a corporate approach to the craft of teaching, and merit pay has met with varying acceptance.

Hawaii teachers have refused to work with the state education department on their program. Florida teachers protested a bill that included the idea last year, but have worked with school districts on merit pay plans.

Miami-Dade will spend $14 million in federal funds for their merit pay plan. The top 20 teachers will earn the largest bonuses, as much as $25,000, according to the Miami Herald. Schools that earn an ‘A’ grade or boost FCAT scores will also get bonuses of $500. District officials told the Herald they expect 75 percent of districts will qualify.

Orange County is starting a pilot program for its evaluation and merit pay programs at 15 elementary schools beginning this fall. Those schools feed into the county’s four lowest-rated high schools. Orange County schools and teachers agreed to a plan similar to those used in sales and marketing firms, said Libba Lyons, who directs the districts Race To The Top program. The plan keeps a tiered salary scale, but teacher’s bonuses are adjusted based on their evaluation. By law districts must base half the teacher’s evaluation on student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Orlando chose the state-recommended “Marzano model” for the other half of the evaluation. Marzano rates teachers on a four point scale in three measures: Student improvement, teacher classroom performance and teacher leadership and professional development.

“It is based on the idea that every teacher can get better,” Lyons said, adding the district is optimistic the system will improve teachers. “We knew this was going to be school reform on a grand scale, but this is so much more than we could have imagined.”

Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association

Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association

Hillsborough County has taken a similar approach as Orange County, tapping the grant to bring in experts to craft a complex, nuanced formula to rate teachers.

In theory teachers like the idea, said Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association president Jean Clements, because under the traditional pay system teachers had to put in decades of service to get raises. More than half of Hillsborough County teachers are in the lowest half of the pay scale, Clements said.

“All that does is keep you from having to pay people until the end of their career,” Clements said. “It’s really not us who has fought to have that. It’s cheap for them (districts) – most people don’t last.”

In practice, though, merit pay adds new bureaucratic burdens to teachers and reduces their sense of financial security.

The Hillsborough formula under construction would allow the highest-rated teachers to advance to the top end of the pay scale after just a few years. Clements said the Hillsborough rating system will show that most teachers are very good.

Vanderbilt University researcher Springer hopes all those ideas will help academics figure out what works and what does not. The key, Springer said, is to independently evaluate each program and try to improve them.

“There’s a lot we need to learn and now there’s going to be a tremendous amount of data,” Springer said. “We’re never going to get it right the first time. The programs are not going to be perfect, the programs need to be continually tweaked and changed.


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