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Teachers Give ‘F’ Grade to Performance-Based Pay : Education: Gov. Wilson is pushing for a merit system. Critics say it cuts morale and impairs vital teamwork.

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Worker A sells more car parts per month than Worker B, so Worker A gets a nice raise. Teacher A produces more students with high test scores than Teacher B, so Teacher A gets the bump in pay.

Sounds reasonable, right?

Wrong, educators say.

For decades, public education has been wedded to a uniform pay scale that neither rewards superior teachers nor penalizes poor ones.

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Business leaders, parents and politicians--most recently Gov. Pete Wilson--have long complained that the traditional system should be scrapped and replaced by “performance pay,” which would tie salaries to how well teachers perform their jobs.

But most states and school districts that have tried merit pay have been stymied by prickly issues, such as how to account for the fact that some teachers have more difficult “clients” than others.

And teachers say that in education, which depends on collegiality and teamwork, merit pay is a proven bad investment.

“Merit pay destroyed morale here,” said Rick Nelson, head of the teachers union in Fairfax County, Va., where the school board recently reinstated merit pay over the disapproving roars of classroom veterans--and despite evidence that the bonuses went disproportionately to teachers in well-heeled neighborhoods.

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“It was $4,000 a year for doing nothing extra as a teacher,” Nelson said. “It was a nightmare.”

Fairfax County’s school district--the 10th largest in the nation--is one of hundreds of school systems that have tried merit pay over the last 70 years. Most abandoned it as either unworkable or counterproductive.

Yet the basic idea of providing financial incentives to reward and encourage excellent teaching continues to percolate among critics and reformers of public education, who contend that the conventional method of setting classroom instructors’ salaries fosters mediocrity and should be overhauled.

Acknowledging that calls for reforming teacher compensation won’t go away, academics and education leaders are finding promise in a new style of merit pay--plans that encourage teachers to learn and apply new skills and reward teams of teachers or entire faculties for exemplary work. This approach, proponents say, avoids the divisiveness and hostility bred by individual merit pay and can help drive systemwide reform.

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“If the governor is proposing merit pay, I hope he hasn’t got a Model-T version of it,” says Allan R. Odden, a leading school finance expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We know how to do it. You don’t use individual merit pay. If you want to have performance awards, it’s to the team or the school.”

Educators in a few places have begun to catch on.

In Douglas County, Colo., teachers who demonstrate proficiency in new skills valued by the district can earn an extra $250 to $500 for each “skill block” mastered, such as desktop publishing. Groups of teachers can win rewards for their school by designing a successful school improvement project, such as one that raises math scores.

Kentucky has the most ambitious statewide group incentive program. Schools are rated on an accountability index based on such factors as test scores, dropout rates and attendance. The campuses that show significant progress will receive rewards: an amount equal to $1,800 to $3,700 per teacher or other credentialed employee. How it is spent will be decided by majority vote.

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“They can divide it among themselves, spend it for some school project, or they could rent a boat and go to the Bahamas,” said Kentucky Department of Education spokesman Jim Parks.

These efforts represent a radical departure from the traditional system of compensating teachers. Typically, teacher salary scales have been constructed to value longevity and years of schooling, not performance, and to eliminate gender or race biases.

Schools have experimented with merit pay plans since the early 1900s, when they were embraced by educators who wanted to transfer principles of “scientific management” from the business world to the classroom, according to Susan Moore Johnson of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Through the decades, interest has waxed and waned, rising in the 1950s and 1960s after Sputnik spotlighted inadequacies in America’s schools, dropping off in the 1970s and 1980s when merit pay plans failed to produce dramatic results in teacher or student performance.

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Today, says Odden, not even big business believes in merit pay that rewards only individual job performance. About two-thirds of the Fortune 1000 companies have replaced old-style merit pay with salaries that are tied to mastery of specific skills and teamwork. “It’s a substantial trend. . . . My sense is that these ideas can very easily be adapted to education.”

In the realm of schools, where the “products” are young minds, not widgets, conventional merit pay plans have been fraught with flaws, most related to the peculiar nature of teachers’ work.

Teachers have no control over the raw material of their profession. The students who enter their classrooms each fall might be malnourished, come from abusive homes or have substandard skills. Textbooks might be outdated or scarce. Basic equipment, like computers and telephones, may be lacking. All these factors affect how well students learn.

Coming up with a fair and accurate method for evaluating teachers’ knowledge and effectiveness has been another stumbling block.

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Although his staff is still fine-tuning the proposal, Gov. Wilson apparently favors tying teacher raises to proof that students are learning more. Higher pay or bonuses might be distributed according to who produces gains in standardized test scores, said Maureen DiMarco, Wilson’s chief education adviser. She said she would favor a plan that measures progress, an approach that would avoid pitting disadvantaged schools against more affluent ones.

She will also examine plans that include schoolwide or team merit pay.

“It’s basic human accountability for the quality of work, but it’s not going to be punitive,” DiMarco said. “There are all kinds of complexities. We’re hopeful there will be a positive discussion of that.”

Lynn M. Cornett, who heads the Career Ladder Clearinghouse for the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta, said there is no clear evidence yet that either individual or schoolwide incentive programs based on student achievement work.

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She said Arizona is the only state that has found success in rewarding individual teachers for raising achievement, but the program is voluntary.

In Kentucky, the first batch of performance bonuses to schools will be distributed this spring. About 500, or 30%, of the state’s 1,400 public schools will be sharing $24 million for making substantial improvements on the accountability index. Texas and Tennessee are experimenting with similar strategies.

Teachers and administrators in California say they hope Gov. Wilson will study the options carefully as he considers a merit pay plan.

The single salary schedule is “an antiquated system,” said Sandra McBrayer, the National Teacher of the Year, who teaches homeless children in San Diego. “But I’m not willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I do believe in merit pay but I don’t like the ‘all or nothing’ approaches that people have been talking about. I would hate someone to say, ‘Gosh, you don’t have the highest test scores so you shouldn’t be recognized.’ ”

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Linda Gonzalez has a similarly tough clientele. She teaches sixth grade in a West Sacramento school that deals with drugs, gangs and guns on a daily basis. Gonzalez was threatened once by a rifle-toting father unhappy with the grades she had given his son. Many of her students are emotionally unstable or come from homes with only one parent, who may be a marijuana dealer or cocaine abuser.

Yet she considers herself a successful teacher. She counts among her successes the former gang member who now lectures youngsters on the importance of staying in school, and the often-truant boy with an emotionally disturbed mother who now comes to school every day.

“My test scores could never compare to . . . Beverly Hills, where children come (with) definite advantages,” she said. “Our success has to be measured differently. Am I a good teacher compared to the one whose kids get 99% on the test?”

Instead of rewarding teachers whose students test well, Gonzalez says, school districts should pay teachers in difficult schools 5% to 10% more than those with few students at risk of failure earn.

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“We have to reward those teachers who will never see high test scores and who never give up,” said Gonzalez, who is one of 14 California teachers to complete a national assessment process certifying them as exemplary teachers.

Until now, California’s primary form of merit pay--its “mentor teacher” program--has been one that is tied not to “results” like student achievement, but to responsibilities.

At Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, a charter school in Pacoima, eight “lead teachers,” working in pairs, will earn an additional $1,500 each this year for taking on extra duties, said Principal Yvonne Chan.

In addition to handling a normal teaching load, they coach their colleagues on new instructional techniques, arrange seminars and other training opportunities, compile teaching materials, coordinate curriculum changes and perform teacher evaluations. Many of the lead teachers use at least part of their bonuses to buy classroom supplies.

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Chan considers this a form of incentive pay because it encourages teachers to take leadership roles and avoids the divisive effects of traditional merit pay. Lead teachers are elected by their peers.

Roxanne Correa, a lead teacher who supervises 15 second-grade instructors, said having lead teachers has bolstered professional pride throughout the school and is enhancing the quality of instruction.

“And it feels good,” she said, “to get the money.”


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