Merit pay, also known as performance pay, keeps turning up on the ed blogs and in the news. How do merit pay plans work? And, coming soon, how does the merit pay debate affect New York City schools?

The gist of performance pay is that districts offer teachers increased pay on the basis of student achievement and other measures of success, often in return for weakened job security. Plans vary: some reward individual teachers, others reward schools, some are based largely on test scores, some include peer and administrator evaluations, and some offer pay increases for taking on extra responsibilities such as mentoring new teachers, or for teaching in a high-needs school or subject area.

A 2007 New York Times article noted teachers’ increasing openness to merit pay programs, especially those involving teacher input and collaboration with their unions. Still, the Times pointed out, many teachers in Texas and Florida rejected merit pay plans, citing concerns about divisiveness, unfairness to teachers of high-needs students, and simplistic evaluations. Educators often say they are insulted by the idea that a little extra cash will increase their motivation to help struggling students.

Paul Tough has written extensively about teacher pay-for-performance plans on his Schoolhouse Rock blog at Slate. He launched last week with a look at political pressure on Barack Obama to push increased teacher pay but decreased job security, then spent the rest of the week examining existing performance pay programs. Tough summarized Michelle Rhee’s proposed salary plan for DC teachers, which would increase salaries across the board, do away with tenure rights, and create an opt-in performance pay program while phasing out the traditional pay scale. Rhee has warned that if teachers reject her plan, she will turn, instead, to tougher evaluations and licensing requirements, making it easier to fire teachers.

There are problems with basing accountability primarily on test scores, Tough acknowledged at Slate, and one study recommends using a combination of test score growth and principal evaluations to rate teachers, with bonuses for the top teachers and dismissal of the lowest performers. He also noted an emerging pattern that younger teachers favor performance pay while older teachers like the tenure model, and suggests that young, better-educated teachers could become a force for change.

Denver’s ProComp plan, which has attracted much positive attention thanks to collaboration between the district and the union, met with controversy during re-negotiations this summer. The district wanted to distribute extra funding by raising the starting salary and offering bonuses for teachers in high-needs schools, while the union wanted the extra funding divided up among all teachers.

The performance pay debates in DC and Denver are getting plenty of attention this year, but other states and districts have programs worth looking at.

Minnesota’s QComp system provides an extra $260 per student to districts that negotiate a pay-for-performance plan. Attempting to account for common criticisms of merit pay, QComp requires that proposals include five elements:

  • a reformed salary schedule (with no cuts in teacher pay),
  • at least 60% of pay increases based on student achievement,
  • teacher evaluations by more than one person, multiple times per year, because “it is clear that having one employee (such as the principal) control the compensation of another employee (such as the teacher) is a recipe for failure,”
  • a career ladder with opportunities for “teachers to retain primary roles in student instruction and facilitate site-focused professional development that helps other teachers improve their skills,”
  • on-site, integrated professional development provided by these master or mentor teachers.

QComp was based on a model called the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), in which schools set aside funding from which to provide bonuses:

The Performance Award Pool is comprised of three components, with each making up a percentage of a teacher’s performance award: (1) Skills, Knowledge & Responsibilities (50 percent of the award); (2) Classroom Achievement Gains (30 percent of the award); (3) School-wide Achievement Gains (20 percent of the award). All student achievement gains are measured using a value-added growth model. Additionally, master and mentor teachers have the opportunity to earn substantially more than the standard salary schedule due to their salary augmentation and performance bonus.

Like QComp, TAP provides opportunities for teachers to earn extra pay by advancing to master teacher positions.

EdWeek and the League of Education Voters each provide overviews of performance pay plans across the nation. Stay tuned for part 2: performance pay in New York City.