Friday, May 28, 2010

Reforming the teaching profession, part 2: Pay-for-performance

Like tenure reform, discussed in yesterday's post, tying teacher salaries to student outcomes is a controversial education reform strategy that is gaining traction across the country, but has yet to be debated in Milwaukee. Many of the recent efforts come from the federal Race to the Top grant guidelines, which expressed a preference for states that included student outcomes as a factor in teacher evaluations.

But even before Race to the Top, several districts already had implemented merit pay plans, most notably the Denver Public Schools. The DPS scheme, call ProComp, was approved by Denver voters in 2005. Teachers new to the district are automatically part of the program and other teachers may opt-in. In exchange for a higher base salary, teachers agree to accept pay raises based on participation in professional development activities, working in a hard-to-staff school, showing proficiency in teacher evaluations, and/or exceeding student achievement goals. The goals of ProComp are to improve student outcomes and to attract and retain quality teachers.

A recent evaluation of ProComp found that the program appears to have contributed to the district's gains in reading and math scores and to have attracted new teachers with better student outcomes in their first year of teaching.

Other programs have shown less promise. An evaluation of a state program in Texas that provided grants to high poverty schools to implement merit-based bonuses found that over the three years of the program, schools that gave bigger bonuses had less teacher turnover; however, no relationship between the merit bonuses and student outcomes was found.

Despite the mixed results of these and other pay-for-performance strategies, federal, state, and district officials continue to seek ways to connect teacher pay to student achievement. In two districts, controversial new superintendents have received approval to implement merit pay plans starting next school year. Michelle Rhee and the Washington D.C. plan were discussed in a previous post. A superintendent that has often been compared to Rhee, Mike Miles, will implement a plan in the Harrison School District of Colorado Springs in which all teachers and principals in the 11,000-student district will forgo salary step increases in favor of raises based on performance.

The Harrison plan stands out among merit pay schemes in its reliance on classroom observations to measure teacher effectiveness. Soon after joining the district in 2006, Miles started intensive professional development for principals in the art of classroom observations. In addition, he established an extensive professional development infrastructure so that principals can refer teachers to training opportunities based on what was observed. Principals are to conduct frequent "spot" observations of 10 to 15 minutes, as well as longer formal observations of entire lessons and/or classes, and give constructive feedback to teachers.

The observation scores will be matched to student performance scores on, at minimum, the state standardized test, progress-monitoring and interim assessments, and district assessments. Together, the observations and student performance scores will place the teacher in one of nine salary tiers. Teachers can move down the tiers, as well as up, and their salaries will be adjusted accordingly. For current teachers, the adjustments will be made from their current salary.

This new merit pay model, which requires not only investment in salaries and raises, but also substantial resources for professional development, is certain to be closely watched across the country as it moves forward. Will Milwaukee's new superintendent be watching as well?

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