Finding the Right Merit Pay Plan
by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell is the latest political leader to create a framework for funding merit pay for teachers. In this plan the state would allot $3 million to selected schools throughout the Commonwealth. The goal is to populate underachieving schools with outstanding educators. However, despite the expectation of extremely tight budgets in the coming year, a number of districts intend to reject this offer. This negative reception demonstrates the difficulty in finding the best approach to utilizing pay incentives to improve student performance.
The latest attempt
In a published statement Gov. McDonnell said, “The funding available for performance pay represents an opportunity to provide meaningful incentives and rewards for exemplary teachers in a significant number of Virginia schools.”
The program targets 169 schools throughout the state which have been designated as “hard to staff”. To receive the funding districts would have to implement a merit-pay plan based on a new teacher evaluation system created by state officials which emphasizes student performance on end-of-course standardized tests.
Not surprisingly teacher unions oppose the effort. Kitty Boitnott, president of the Virginia Education Association responded, “Paying teachers to work in hard-to-staff schools is one thing, but it’s totally different to allocate pay based on how students do on an SOL (Virginia’s standardized exam) on a given day in a given year.” A larger concern has been the specific schools designated for the program. Both Arlington and Loudon County spokespersons have expressed serious disagreement with these choices. “They’ve listed five of our schools, and none of them are difficult to staff,” said Wayde Byard, a spokesman for the Loudoun County school system. Meanwhile Linda Erdos of Arlington County noted, “We’re not really sure how these schools got on the list rather than others.” She added that schools that would appear to be more appropriate were omitted. Many of the ones chosen by the state were considered successful by local officials.
Use money to reward not to motivate
There is little doubt that in order to improve the schools in Virginia and elsewhere the key component is hiring and retaining the best teachers to work with the most challenging students. But the method being suggested by Virginia appears misguided. The key to merit pay is establishing a plan that will actually create better teaching staffs. Viewing a bonus as an incentive for a teacher to work more effectively demonstrates a lack of understanding of the forces that drive the most successful classroom instructors. Great teachers are not primarily motivated by finances; their greatest satisfaction results from assisting students to attain academic success. Thus, the proper timing for monetary rewards should be given after educators have demonstrated their excellence in the classroom.
Beginning the process by targeting the most unsuccessful schools may be a waste of limited funds as well. A better approach to the problems that Virginia is trying to remedy would be to focus on the schools that are outperforming expectations. My former school had every possible excuse to fail. It had the highest free and reduced lunch rate in the district as well as the largest ELL population and the most mobility. Despite these demographic disadvantages, based on standardized tests, it outperformed 50% of the more affluent schools in the system. Using this as a model, perhaps a better use of financial rewards would be to offer them to teachers and administrators who have proven their skills in similar situations in return for moving to less successful schools. However, it is critical that such personnel shifts also be accompanied by a mandate that these individuals are given significant influence in the policies and practices in their new schools. This combination of monetary incentives and the ability to have meaningful input in creating a positive learning environment would serve as a powerful lure for outstanding educators. These are the individuals who should be the focus of any merit pay initiative.
There may be a better way
Another district in Virginia is proceeding with its own plan. Beginning in 2011-2012 Prince William County will introduce an $11.1 million merit pay program. While it still targets the poorest schools, it does offer an interesting twist—the awards are based on the overall performance of schools, not individual teachers. Such an approach would create more of a team spirit within a faculty as bonuses would be determined by the entire student body rather than each individual teacher.
However, I believe one additional step could be taken to make the process even more positive. I have previously discussed the concept of “merit pay” for overachieving schools.
“If a school’s faculty is among the top scorers in the district, factoring in all the variables about the various schools in the system, then the school is given a reward. It could be in the form of extra staffing (lower class sizes), better resources, or improved technology in addition to the implicit recognition. This system would not be designed to punish affluent schools. As demonstrated in an earlier piece (Time to Turn Talk into Action) a relatively simple mathematical equation can be constructed that will acknowledge success at all types of schools.
Recognition of ‘merit’ whether in actual dollars or in the clear and concrete knowledge that their talents are both documented and appreciated is critical to the morale and self-confidence of our best educators. By incorporating a quantitative, consistent evaluation with financial rewards for outstanding teachers and schools, such an outcome is possible.”
It may not be perfect but it could be a start.