Friday, April 10, 2009

Programs that reward teachers for performance rather than seniority are gaining political momentum across the nation, despite lingering opposition from unions and the lack of clear evidence such plans work.

Eleven states now have statewide performance-pay programs for teachers, including Alaska, Georgia and Texas. There are federally funded or district-implemented programs in 26 states.

Utah last month passed a performance-pay program, and in Minnesota the Republican governor wants to expand an existing one. Legislators in South Carolina and Missouri are weighing bills that would reward teachers for better classroom performance.

“Performance pay has been a conservative idea for a long time, and now people across all ideologies are saying it makes sense,” said Mike Antonucci, a teachers union watchdog who publishes an online newsletter.

The plans indeed appear destined to mushroom after President Obama made a pitch for them in a speech outlining his vision for education reform. Already, Mr. Obama’s federal stimulus package includes $200 million in funding for performance-pay pilot programs in up to 150 more school districts. However, this puts him at odds with teachers unions that have long resisted any changes to how teachers are paid.

The nation’s largest teachers union, the 3.2 million-member National Education Association (NEA), opposed the performance-pay plan included in the renewal of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The NEA failed to endorse Mr. Obama until late in the presidential campaign. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), with 1.4 million members, backed candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, turning to Mr. Obama only after he won the Democratic nomination.

In the District, an ambitious performance-pay plan proposed by D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is stuck after continuing opposition from the Washington Teachers’ Union.

Yet, some signs suggest that unions are starting to come around to the idea of performance pay. NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said his union is not opposed to such plans if they are bargained between local school districts and unions. On the other hand, he added, “if performance pay means the failed merit-pay plans of the past, if it means plans based on student test scores,” the union would oppose them.

Some teachers unions, including the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, which is led by AFT President Randi Weingarten, have worked with districts to implement performance-pay plans they consider fair. Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group based in Washington, said that she thinks teachers unions will be willing to accept fair performance-pay plans.

“Some of the early performance-pay packages have been based on test scores, and that’s inherently unfair,” she said.

Those who implement and observe such plans say there is very little evidence yet that they work, given how young and diverse most plans are.

No two plans are alike. Most, however, rely on a mix of common factors, including student test scores, teacher evaluations, teachers who teach in hard-to-staff schools and subjects, and professional development.

“At this point, we really don’t know if they work,” said Matthew Springer, director of the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “Across the board, it is too early to say if this is a good policy idea or not.”

A study Mr. Springer did of Texas’ performance-pay program, first implemented in the 2006-07 school year, found that it had positive effects on teacher attitudes, with educators reporting they collaborate more with colleagues and encourage students to work harder than they did before the plans were implemented.

The lack of evidence and the budget shortfall have not held back districts and states from experimenting with alternative ways to pay teachers or implementing full-blown, ambitious plans.

Locally, Prince George’s County in 2007 received a five-year, $17 million federal grant to start its own performance-pay program. Teachers and administrators at county schools could earn up to $12,000 more in their annual salaries under this program. Mrs. Rhee’s program in the District has proposed a two-track performance-pay system.

Under the green track, teachers who volunteer would give up all tenure rights in return for potentially larger pay increases and become eligible for performance bonuses that would raise their annual salaries to more than $100,000. Teachers who choose the red track would not give up tenure but would get smaller salary increases and would not be eligible for performance bonuses.

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