Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Delicate Task of Developing an Attractive Merit Pay Plan for Teachers: Successful Implementation of Any Merit Pay Scheme Requires Attending to Some Basics of Sound School Improvement, Including Developing Relationships and Encouraging Collaboration

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Delicate Task of Developing an Attractive Merit Pay Plan for Teachers: Successful Implementation of Any Merit Pay Scheme Requires Attending to Some Basics of Sound School Improvement, Including Developing Relationships and Encouraging Collaboration

Article excerpt

We've spent four years assessing claims about the potential for implementing performance-based pay (or merit pay) for educators in elementary and secondary schools. In the theoretical realm, passionate promoters of merit pay have argued that such a scheme would properly align incentives for teachers so the most talented are recruited, the best are rewarded, and the laggards are relocated to a different profession. On the other hand, fervent foes of the practice contend that performance pay would not capture all that teachers do and would instead result in a counter-productive narrowing of the teacher's goals and divisive competition between and among educators who would otherwise seek fruitful collaboration.

Of course, one problem with these philosophical disputes is that they were often made in the absence of evidence. So how do these programs affect teacher performance and, thus, affect student learning? A review of empirical data from the handful of merit pay schemes in the United States and abroad revealed, not surprisingly, that the results of these programs are mixed. Some programs showed significant student achievement gains, others did not. However, perhaps one reason for the lack of positive results for several attempted programs was that they were aborted early, often due to heated opposition from teacher groups. And yet, programs that were sensibly implemented and persisted did show evidence of enhanced student learning. Thus, our cautious conclusion from this literature is that thoughtful merit pay plans, carefully implemented, have the potential to lead to improved student performance.

In 2007, we began to work with various school district leaders and teacher groups to create productive incentive structures that appealed to both administrators and teachers. At the same time, we began meeting with state and federal policy makers to discuss the potential of merit pay for teachers and to learn from these leaders what types of programs would be palatable politically. We've worked on a federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant proposal with one of Arkansas' largest districts, collaborated with another large school district to develop a plan that was supported by 98% of the district's teachers, and worked with charter school founders on a plan that was implemented in the charter district when the three schools opened in July 2008.

Our experience developing the merit pay plan for the eStem charter schools in Little Rock--a system that serves nearly 1,000 students--helped us identify five key lessons that we believe should guide the work of others interested in developing similar programs.

Lesson #1: Generate Teacher, Staff, and Administrator Support

When the eStem charter school founders were beginning to develop the school's strategic plan, consider curricula, and interview potential faculty, school leaders decided to incorporate a performance-based component in the teachers' compensation scheme. Thus, the work of fostering teacher acceptance, or "buy-in," was different for eStem school leaders than it would have been for administrators in a traditional school with a staff already in place.

Nonetheless, eStem administrators wisely recognized that staff support was necessary for the program to be successful, so teachers were involved in every step of the planning. We adapted this strategy from our work in the Siloam Springs School District, where 98% of teachers favored our proposed performance pay plan. This resounding support likely wouldn't have been present if we hadn't included teachers in developing the plan from day one.

The first, and perhaps most important, step in this process called for eStem administrators to spend several hours at the beginning of the school year describing the possible benefits of merit pay and debunking some of the myths surrounding this heated issue. This is critically important because the first reaction of most teachers and school employees to the words "merit pay" is, at best, skeptical and, at worst, angry. …

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