$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.
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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