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Sharing the Wealth: Findings From a Study of a Texas Merit-Pay Program

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When teachers are given the opportunity to design their own performance-pay programs, they tend to choose relatively modest bonuses and spread them around more widely.

That's what researchers from Nashville's Vanderbilt University are discovering as they evaluate a performance-pay program that was piloted in Texas between the 2005-06 and the 2008-09 school years. Over those years, the Governor's Educator Excellence Grants program distributed more than $10 million a year in federal grants to 99 schools that managed to turn in high scores on state tests despite enrolling large numbers of students from low-income families.

What made the program different from some other merit-pay schemes, though, was that it required schools to involve teachers in designing the performance-incentive plans for their own schools.

Most of the plans they developed called for individual staff bonuses that were, on average, less than the $3,000 minimum that state education officials recommended—and less than most such bonuses in the private sector. (Think Wall Street.) In fact, 80 percent of the teachers who received a bonus under the program got less than $3,000.

The teacher-designed plans also turned out to be highly egalitarian: 78 percent of the teachers in the bonus-eligible schools got an award. That percentage even included some teachers who had not worked at the same school the year before.

Even a modest $3,000 bonus was enough of an incentive to dramatically reduce teacher turnover at the schools involved, the researchers found. Still, there's no clear evidence on whether the program is having an impact on student achievement, according to the report, and that, of course, is the bottom line.

But stay tuned. The final report on the program has yet to be issued, and sources tell me that it's just weeks away. In the meantime, you can read the newly released second-year report at the Web site for Vanderbilt's National Center on Performance Incentives.


3 Comments

I've been writing a lot about the connection between baseball and education, particularly as it relates to career development and compensation. There's a reason that major league managers can't vote for their own players for the All Star Game. If they could, they would feel compelled to because they'd need to spread the wealth around to their own ballplayers to keep a healthy motivated clubhouse.

It is likely terribly important for teachers to help design the compensation systems under which they are paid. But I suspect designing those systems at the individual school level make it difficult to award certain merits to All Stars. And that's understandable. Doing otherwise would be disruptive to the clubhouse.

That's why we probably need to take it a level up, to the district at the very least.

I haven't read the study, but this article does not state whether or not the teachers did the evaluation and in essence gave out the awards, as Phillip Gonring seems to assume. However, I would caution against pursuing the All-Star analogy too far. There's a set number of players on the All-Star team, and there's often tension on athletic teams when potential stars face pressure from younger rookies who want to cut into their playing time. In schools, we're all playing, all the time, and need incentives to help each other succeed, rather than incentives to compete or look over our shoulders. Effective designs for performance pay will encourage collaboration and have room for all teachers who qualify - unlike an All-Star team. Denver's Pro-Comp system works this way. New Mexico has a higher-level teacher license (a Stage III/Master Teacher license), which is available to any teacher who meets requirements involving a portfolio/dossier evaluation and a higher degree or National Board Certification.

My theory as to why a teacher does not choose a higher level of compensation is not so complicated as the baseball analogy. I believe that we as teachers are more democratic and conservative in our estimation as to what a fair salary increase should be. First, we see that we are all working hard, ergo we all deserve a pay raise but one that is equal to everyone else's. The math is that if everyone deserves the money, then we are willing to take a share that leaves enough for everyone to have a share of the pot. After all, no teacher would ever bring treats for just a few of his/her students. If we treat our students, that means all of them. If I view my fellow colleagues as equals who work equally hard, then all of us deserve an equal portion of the pie.

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