Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Will Teacher Merit Pay Make the Grade?

$5,000 or not, groups hate Perry's proposed incentive plan

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Would the promise of an extra $5,000 a year spur teachers to get more out of their students on testing day?

The DeSoto district, where science teacher Robyn Rumsey (left) works, has had bonuses linked to grades for several years.

Gov. Rick Perry and legislative leaders think they know the answer. They're poised to create one of the few state merit pay programs for teachers as part of a big education package to be considered in the next few months. They would make millions of dollars in bonuses available to the state's 300,000 classroom teachers, to be doled out based on students' standardized test scores.

It's an idea without much of a track record – education analysts say no state has a comprehensive merit pay program, though several are exploring the concept. In Texas, less than 4 percent of districts in a recent survey said they have performance-based incentives.

What's more, the few districts and states that have tried it have often scaled back or abandoned it because of cost constraints and mixed results.

The idea is anathema to Texas teacher organizations, which say that all teachers – not just a select few – need a pay raise. They also fear adding a temptation to cheat on standardized tests. But Mr. Perry said the way to encourage strong teachers is to reward their work.

"Excellence should not be rewarded the same as mediocrity," he said in his State of the State address last week. "Otherwise, mediocrity becomes its own incentive. When money follows results, we will get more results for our money."

In Texas and most other states, salaries are based primarily on years of experience. The longer a teacher works, the more he or she is paid.

Legislative leaders haven't fleshed out their plan. But part of the governor's $500 million proposal last year would have allowed teachers to compete for annual bonuses of $5,000, a tidy sum in a state where the average salary is around $41,000. In his State of the State address, he raised that to $7,500.
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In fighting merit pay, teacher organizations point to the lack of research showing that bonuses motivate teachers to get more out of their students.

"The assumption is that most teachers are lazy, that if you suddenly offer them extra money, they will teach better," said John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. "It's a ridiculous assumption."

Mr. Cole said that while his group backs financial incentives to help fill teacher shortages – such as in math and science – and for teachers who agree to work in low-performing schools, the federation draws the line at using test results to distribute bonuses.

"This is just another scheme to deflect attention from the Legislature's failure to provide proper funding for Texas schools," he said.

Mr. Cole also raised concern that linking pay to standardized test results might increase cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

Legislative backers of merit pay dismissed the concern. Cheating on the TAKS carries too many risks for teachers, they say, such as loss of their state certification and possible jail sentences.

Checkered past

The idea of incentives, while never widely tested, is not new. California's once heralded merit pay program was discontinued in 2001 after more than $800 million in bonuses were paid out over two years. The program fell victim to the state's budget crisis before it showed any impact on student achievement.

Texas had a "career ladder" for teachers for nearly a decade, allowing them to earn extra pay based on performance appraisals and professional development. Teachers complained, though, that the administrators handing out the funds weren't impartial, and state and local funds fell short. The program was abolished in 1993.

Legislative leaders such as Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro say such pitfalls can be avoided. And she insisted the climate has changed.

"It has worked in other states and even in several districts in Texas," the Plano Republican said. "The only people who truly disagree with this concept are the teacher unions themselves. Individual teachers have told me it would be a great opportunity for them."

Senate leaders included incentive pay in the school finance plan they unveiled this month. Initially, they would like to see about $150 million a year earmarked for merit pay.

"We'd like to see a program that is campus-based," Ms. Shapiro said. "If a campus is doing a really great job ... we want to reward the whole teaching team."

A recent survey of school districts in the state found that about 11 percent have some type of incentive pay plan, said Mary Regan of the Texas Association of School Boards. Most are based on teacher attendance.

Just under 4 percent of districts in the survey – 26 districts – indicated they had a group bonus program based on student performance. One of those is the DeSoto district, which pays bonuses to all employees, not just teachers, when students meet certain performance goals.

"Not many districts have true performance pay, linking test scores to bonuses," Ms. Regan said. By contrast, she noted, about half of the 1,040 school districts in Texas offer cash stipends for teachers certified in shortage areas.

DeSoto paid bonuses of nearly 1.5 percent in each of the program's first four years. This year, though, TAKS passing rates fell – as they did in many districts because the test was made more rigorous.

Robyn Rumsey, a science teacher at the DeSoto High School freshman campus, said the program has been very popular among teachers.

"It hasn't been a huge amount of money, but it was a nice check that most of us appreciated," said Ms. Rumsey, who has taught in DeSoto for 12 years.

But one of the keys to that popularity, she said, is that all employees benefit from success, not just a few.

"Everybody on campus contributes to the success of students," she said. "If you give out rewards for individual effort, I think you'd see teachers competing to get the students most likely to succeed. I'm not sure there's a fair way to do that."

Jennifer Azordegan, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, agreed that one of the problems with merit pay is determining how much influence a teacher's style and practices have on student growth. Too many other factors, such as family background and previous educational experiences, are at work, she explained.

"There's no doubt that a teacher has a huge impact on a student's performance. But when you get to defining how much that really is and whether it can be affected by the level of pay – that's where people get a little uncomfortable," said Ms. Azordegan, whose organization is a national clearinghouse for education policy and school reform.

North Carolina has a limited merit pay plan that rewards all teachers in each school rated "exemplary" under the state's accountability system. The $1 million program pays bonuses of $1,500 to those teachers and $750 to teachers in schools that meet projected academic growth, based on test scores.

All eyes on Denver

An incentive pay plan in the Denver public school system is perhaps the most closely watched program of its type in the nation. Voters are being asked this fall to approve a $25 million property tax increase to fund the program.

A pilot program involving 12 campuses resulted in student achievement gains at most of the schools. But the program is voluntary for teachers and was created only after the Denver Classroom Teachers Association signed on.

Texas lawmakers should not expect similar enthusiasm here, said Donna New Haschke, president of the Texas State Teachers Association. Too many teachers would be left out of a merit pay plan that relies mostly on TAKS scores, she said.

More than half of Texas educators teach subjects not measured on the TAKS. That includes groups not tested, such as students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and the first, second and 12th grades. Many subjects – foreign languages, physical education, vocational education, music, art, speech and drivers education – are not tested.

Merit pay supporters said they would include teachers of untested subjects in their program, probably by rewarding all teachers at a campus that shows achievement gains from one year to the next. Senate leaders have also said they would support an across-the-board pay hike for all teachers as part of their school improvement package.

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  1. Legislator Florence Shapiro (R) of Plano, the Senate Education Committee Chairwoman had this to say about the proposed merit pay plan: "The only people who truly disagree with this concept are the teacher unions themselves. Individual teachers have told me it would be a great opportunity for them." I am under the impression that “individual teachers “ are the ones that make up teacher unions. In my poll of individual teachers, they were all against the proposal. My poll included 5 elementary teachers, but then how many teachers did Shapiro talk to?

    For the education of a child to be truly effective and successful it does “take a village.” Hillary Clinton explains, "When I am talking about 'It Takes a Village', I'm obviously not talking just about or even primarily about geographical villages any longer, but about the network of relationships and values that do connect us and binds us together." These connections and collaborations are crucial, especially in those schools serving low-income, minority students. It does not take a large leap of imagination to realize the negative possibilities/unintended consequences of merit pay based on one test. Teachers already feel the split of teaching a student and teaching a test. With our high-stakes test, teachers begin to see the child as a number on a test. With the suggested plan of merit pay, teachers may now see that child as a dollar sign. As to combining TAKS test score with teacher evaluations, we have already tried tying bonuses with teacher evaluations with the career ladder that engendered much controversy. My question is what does “merit” mean in merit pay? Students’ scores on one test cannot begin to assess and monitor the variables and complexities that are involved in collaborative and caring education.

  2. An incentitive plan for teachers sounds great on the surface. I continually hear from people outside of education say that everyone knows that competition and money are the best motivators and that the best teachers should get paid more than others who are not as good at teaching. The argument usually is stated in this fashion,"Why should an average teacher get the same pay as one who works twice as hard and gets better results? In the "real world" employees do not get the same salary or the same raise each time someone else gets an increase in their salary. Why should teachers?"

    My answer to them is always the same. In the "real world" companies conduct extensive and, at times, exhaustive searches for the best and brightest people to put in place to help shore up the bottom line. They can offer them lucrative salaries and other fringe benefits such as car allowances and country club memberships. In addition, these companies also are selective in their clientele. They only pursue the type of customer who is able to afford their product and services. If the employee is unable to bring in enough money to justify his or her position, the company simply relieves them of their responsibilities and finds another person to get the job done. Same story with their clients. Once the client is unable to continue purchasing the company product or service, they are deemed not worthy and pushed aside for other customers who have the resources necessary for the continued success and profitability of the company.

    School districts do not have the money nor the means to court teachers. Depending where the school district is located, they may be forced to hire the only person who applied for the position whether they are certified or not, experienced or inexperienced. Furthermore, most teachers did not join the ranks to become wealthy. They do what they do because they love teaching. Sadly, too many are having to choose between doing what they love or finding another job that pays more and offers amazing benefits such as affordable medical and dental insurance for their families.

    Also, teachers do not choose their customers. When a student walks in the door of a classroom without the required skills to succeed, teachers do not send them out and go looking for other better educated students. Teachers do what they do; they teach regardless of what the student brings to the table.

    My bottom line: You cannot measure a teacher's worth by how well their students do on one test one day out of the entire school year.

  3. Why is it that whenever legislators want to help teachers, or in this case, motivate us out of "mediocrity", all they talk about is money? Dangling a $5000 check in front of me won't help my students as much as lowering the number of students in my classroom, giving me fewer diagnostic tests to administer, and less paperwork to fill out!

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