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Ackerman: Reward high-performing teachers with more pay

Nationally, though, there is little agreement about what models are effective.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

With another contract negotiation with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers underway, performance pay for teachers is again on the agenda.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman wants to promote compensation plans that are tied to performance. She’s in line with President Obama, who is seeking a whopping $517 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) in the federal budget.

But what is meant by performance pay? Bonuses for higher student test scores? More money for student progress on multiple measures? Increases for going through rigorous evaluations and assuming extra duties?

There have long been performance-pay experiments. One of the best known, called ProComp, is in Denver. Jointly worked out by district and union, it pays teachers extra based on whether they meet personal objectives, receive positive evaluations, and get students to exceed growth goals on state tests.

But there is little evidence on whether such plans improve student achievement or the quality of who enters and stays in the profession.

“Research coming out of the early experiments is either inconclusive or modest,” said Kate Walsh, executive director of the National Center on Teacher Quality.

Performance pay is just one form of “differentiated pay,” which also encompasses incentives for teaching in hard-to-staff schools and in high-need areas such as science, but doesn’t necessarily mean tying salary or bonuses to academic performance. Differentiated pay is an effort to move away from the rigid salary schedule now used in most contracts, based on longevity and level of education regardless of teacher ambition, effectiveness, or value to the school.

Philadelphia’s latest contract provides a modest $1,500 annual bonus for teachers in shortage areas like science, as well as tuition reimbursement and other incentives for working in 24 hard-to-staff schools.

Union-district collaboration

As calls for performance pay accelerated, some districts, including Colonial in Montgomery County, tried and failed to tie bonuses to test scores. More enduring have been union-district collaborations like that in Denver. Obama, in touting performance pay, says that any such plans should be developed jointly with teachers.

The American Federation of Teachers has taken the position that while “teachers should not be evaluated using a single test score,” differentiated pay can work if it is voluntary, schoolwide, and promotes collaboration.

But in a paper featured on the AFT Web site, its late former president, Sandra Feldman, argued that individual performance pay could be used as a quicker path to competitive compensation for ambitious young teachers who might otherwise leave.

Besides disagreements on individual vs. group rewards – unions argue that individual rewards lead to resentment – other points of contention are whether student test scores should be used at all to evaluate teachers and whether paying extra for “knowledge and skills,” such as those developed through the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, has value.

Walsh suggested that research on performance pay is mixed because “early experiments have been modest, limited, and not nearly as ambitious as they need to be to have an impact on teacher quality and teacher retention.”

Bolder plans – such as Washington, D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee’s call for teachers to trade tenure for the chance at much higher salaries based on performance – have been highly controversial.

Experiments fizzled

Philadelphia’s history is littered with failed compensation reform attempts.

Twenty years ago, District and union negotiators created the category “senior career teacher,” with higher pay for accumulating 60 credits beyond a master’s and obtaining dual certification. In return, they were supposed to assume additional duties, including mentoring younger teachers.

This was touted as a major advance in what was then a nascent movement. However, the District exerted no control over what courses teachers took to get the additional credits and never specified job duties for the senior career teachers. As a result, it became little more than an additional pay step.

A recent report for the District by Education Research Strategies concluded there is no evidence that the $63 million paid to teachers for additional coursework – $28 million of that for the “senior career teachers” – is yielding benefits.

Then, in 2000, the District and the union negotiated another “breakthrough,” a proposed plan coordinating compensation with “skill and knowledge in subject content and classroom practice” that would be mandatory for new teachers and voluntary for others.

A District-union committee was established to work out the details, but disbanded after a year of fruitless effort.

Most recently, Philadelphia qualified for one of the initial federal grants – $20.5 million – under the Teacher Incentive Fund. Philadelphia’s proposal called for 20 schools to implement the Teacher Advancement Program, an intense evaluation system in which master and mentor teachers work with colleagues and high performance is rewarded.

However, again after months of negotiation, the District and PFT could not agree on terms, so the District decided to work with 11 charter schools instead.