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Merit Pay Model Not Ready For Prime Time?

A reader wrote in today on my old blog -- perhaps in response to Sam Dillon's NYT article on the slow but steady rise of merit pay initiatives -- to share a deeply negative experience with one of the merit pay models that's being used in several places, the Teacher Advancement Program (now called NIET): "The TAP program was the worst thing to ever happen to my school," writes Smithie. "After 2 years, almost all experienced teachers left, including half of the TAP Leadership team...Additionally, the cost of the program is exorbitant. Off the charts."

Specific complaints aside, is it the TAP model that most districts are adopting with their TIF money, or are there other, better ones -- from Odden, or wherever? Have the different models been compared in terms of how they work? Or is there as yet no single model that seems to work "everywhere"?


"TAP has grown dramatically over the past seven years because its results show substantially improved student achievement and high levels of teacher satisfaction. NIET's latest TAP evaluation (found at www.talentedteachers.org) shows that TAP teachers produce higher student achievement growth than non-TAP teachers. These results have generated high demand from educators, union leaders, governments, foundations and corporations. In fact, TAP's support from and collaboration with teachers have been instrumental to the program's progress, expansion and sustainability. Over 70% of teachers experience high levels of collegiality. In TAP's 130 schools, we have also observed reduced turnover of teachers, and principals say it is easier to hire effective teachers. Teachers across the country are speaking out about TAP's positive impact on their schools. Just check out "What People Are Saying About TAP" at http://www.talentedteachers.org/tap.taf?page=quotes

I know that TAP would choose only to list the positive comments on their website about what people are saying about TAP. I know there are other comments that are less complimentary that are not listed. I know this because my school's comments were less than positive and I have spoken with other schools at the TAP conferences that are also experiencing the same things I mentioned in the earlier posting.

I will admit that our scores rose slightly this year. However, they rise slightly every year. I have a hard time justifying the fact that the program costs over $250,000 for the year and we got, essentially, what we have always gotten.

I think it may be easier to hire teachers who do not know what they are getting into. In words, the program sounds GREAT. However, in life, it is not necessarily the same pretty package.

I admit the twice weekly cluster meetings do create a level of collegiality. However, in my experience, once payouts happened, collegiality was all out the window. Teachers were no longer working as members of a "team". It caused increased and unnecessary stress in our work environment. It was something I had never experienced before. So far, we have 24 teachers not returning next year and almost half of the leadership team is included in that 24.

This is my school's experience. It is similar to the experiences of teachers in Eagle County and Waseca schools. To say the program has had overwhelmingly positive results is misleading. Instead of patting themselves on the back for their program's skewed questionnaire results (we had to complete our questionnaire during the cluster time, surrounded by our master and mentor teachers, so many did not feel they could be completely honest), they should be looking at ways to address the issues that continue to arise. Those concerns are (taken from an earlier post)
1. The teachers didn't like the evaluation process (six evaluations a year in a highly critical format with unattainable goals)
2. The teachers didn’t like the added workload (some strategies are awkward for secondary, content driven, curriculum… like reading strategies in keyboarding classes).
3. The teachers didn’t like the pay differences (and they had a hard time understanding the highly complicated formula that determined those pay differences).
4. The teachers didn’t like the fact the program negatively effected the team atmosphere and created a more indivdual, competitive one.

These are real concerns with the program. TAP seems to want to put its collective head in the sand and pretend these very honest concerns do not exist.

There definitely are other, more flexible models than the TAP plan--look at work done on pay for performance in Denver and Minneapolis. The mixed reaction to TAP highlights a couple of important points in the drive to create better, fairer pay plans for teachers: teacher must have genuine input into structuring their own compensation systems, and one size does not fit all.

For another look at pay for performance, the Center for Teaching Quality released a comprehensive, teacher-written report on the issue in April. The report addresses complaints raised by Smithie. It will be a difficult task to get teachers to re-think the way they're paid, but well worth it. To access the report: http://www.teacherleaders.org/

I was one of the teachers who helped write the Center for Teaching Quality report on Performance Pay for Teachers; I am also a recipient of the Milken Award (as were several other teachers on the team). We were familiar with the TAP model and looked at it (and many others) during our study of this issue. Frankly, we found it lacking for many of the reasons Smithie mentions. Putting a lid on the number of teachers who can achieve the highest levels under the plan defeats the goal of a high quality teacher in EVERY classroom. Merit pay plans can work, but they need to be developed by and with teachers at the local levels.

I am a teacher from Eagle County, Colorado where the TAP model has been in place for 5 years. Here are some facts. 14 of 16 principals are new within the past 5 years with some buildings hiring their 3rd or 4th new principal in the past year. Teacher turnover is 2-4 times higher than neighboring districts, with similar cost of living. The state test scores have declined. 4 of 5 upper administrators resigned this year. Our district has been gutted of experienced teachers and administrators, test scores have declined, morale is at an all time low, and teachers resent the measly amount of maerit pay they receive. TAP has not worked for us.

Speaking of the merit pay, I agree with Maryann's statement that teacher resent the measly amount of value added pay they receive. It is almost demeaning.

TAP sets all of these unattainable goals which increases teacher's already mountain-high stress load. Then, teachers work numerous extra hours attending twice weekly meetings and doing the required "homework" for those meetings. This probably adds up to 120 extra hours a year. Then, some teachers receive $350? Some receive $1200? A minority receives $2000+ ? There are no guarantees that you will receive anything. If there is a teacher in your group that receives a large payout, that means everyone else's payout in that group is smaller. That is where the resentment comes in.

Teachers are not stupid. Most of our experienced teachers chose to go to different school districts where the pay is already better. Usually, since TAP schools are mainly in impoverished areas, the clientele is also easier to teach in their new schools.

TAP does not give teachers a reason to stay at a low-performing school. But, it gives them many reasons to leave.

Another problem with the TAP model is the staffing shortage it creates. Our schools do not receive extra FTE for the master teachers that TAP requires. For instance, if a building is allowed 18 full time teachers, but requires 2 master teachers, all the students must now be distributed between 16 teachers. However, the district still reports the lower student teacher ratio. This year certain schools had 29 students in each kindergarten class while other schools eliminated art teachers. All schools have cut back contact time in PE, music, computer and art due to TAP.

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