June 18, 2007
Long Reviled, Merit Pay Gains Among Teachers
By SAM DILLON
MINNEAPOLIS — For years, the unionized teaching profession opposed few ideas more vehemently than merit pay, but those objections appear to be eroding as school districts in dozens of states experiment with plans that compensate teachers partly based on classroom performance.
Here in Minneapolis, for instance, the teachers’ union is cooperating with Minnesota’s Republican governor on a plan in which teachers in some schools work with mentors to improve their instruction and get bonuses for raising student achievement. John Roper-Batker, a science teacher here, said his first reaction was dismay when he heard his school was considering participating in the plan in 2004.
“I wanted to get involved just to make sure it wouldn’t happen,” he said.
But after learning more, Mr. Roper-Batker said, “I became a salesman for it.” He and his colleagues have voted in favor of the plan twice by large margins.
Minnesota’s $86 million teacher professionalization and merit pay initiative has spread to dozens of the state’s school districts, and it got a lift this month when teachers voted overwhelmingly to expand it in Minneapolis. A major reason it is prospering, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in an interview, is that union leaders helped develop and sell it to teachers.
“As a Republican governor, I could say, ‘Thou shalt do this,’ and the unions would say, ‘Thou shalt go jump in the lake,’ ” Mr. Pawlenty said. “But here they partnered with us.”
Scores of similar but mostly smaller teacher-pay experiments are under way nationwide, and union locals are cooperating with some of them, said Allan Odden, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies teacher compensation. A consensus is building across the political spectrum that rewarding teachers with bonuses or raises for improving student achievement, working in lower income schools or teaching subjects that are hard to staff can energize veteran teachers and attract bright rookies to the profession.
“It’s looking like there’s a critical mass,” Professor Odden said. The movement to experiment with teacher pay, he added, “is still not ubiquitous, but it’s developing momentum.”
Some plans still run into strong opposition from teachers and their unions, as in Texas and Florida this year, where skeptical teachers rejected proposals from school districts. An incentive-pay proposal by Chancellor Joel I. Klein of the New York City public schools has stalled, with city officials and the teachers’ union blaming each other.
Minnesota’s experience shows, however, that an incentive plan created with union input can draw teacher support.
Merit pay, or compensating teachers for classroom performance rather than their years on the job and coursework completed, found some support in the 1980s among policy makers and school administrators, who saw it as a way to encourage good teachers to work harder and to weed out the bad ones. But teachers saw it as a gimmick used by principals to reward cronies based on favoritism.
How thoroughly unions will embrace merit pay remains unclear, said Chester E. Finn Jr., an education scholar who served in the Reagan administration. In some cities where unions have agreed to participate in merit pay programs, they have consented only after reshaping the programs so thoroughly that student achievement is one of many factors by which teachers are judged, reducing the programs’ effectiveness, Mr. Finn said.
The rewards teachers receive for outstanding performance range from a few hundred dollars to $10,000 or more in a few districts.
The Department of Education is encouraging schools and districts to try merit pay. [Last week it awarded 18 new federal grants, building on 16 others distributed last November. That makes a total of $80 million that the Bush administration has given to schools and districts in 19 states that have incentive pay plans.] Private groups are also involved; the Milken Family Foundation of Santa Monica, Calif., for instance, which helped create the Minnesota program, has channeled money and expertise into similar plans that include incentive pay at 130 schools in 14 states and the District of Columbia.
The positions of the two national teachers’ unions diverge on merit pay. The National Education Association, the larger of the two, has adopted a resolution that labels merit pay, or any other pay system based on an evaluation of teachers’ performance, as “inappropriate.”
The American Federation of Teachers says it opposes plans that allow administrators alone to decide which teachers get extra money or that pay individual teachers based solely on how students perform on standardized test scores, which they consider unreliable. But it encourages efforts to raise teaching quality and has endorsed arrangements that reward teams of teachers whose students show outstanding achievement growth.
Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in New York, said the union was willing to talk further with the city about “schoolwide bonuses for sustained growth in student achievement.”
Some recent experiments have run into the same opposition that doomed merit pay in the 1980s. In Houston, an incentive plan drafted at school district headquarters over union opposition stirred up a firestorm when the first checks were written earlier this year and The Houston Chronicle put teachers’ bonuses on its Web site, making public which teachers the district had rewarded and embarrassing those it had not.
In Florida, the Legislature last year rushed to approve a merit pay plan before Gov. Jeb Bush left office in January. But many teachers rejected it this spring because it limited bonuses to the top 25 percent of teachers in any school, identified primarily by students’ test scores; they said that was an artificial cap. This year Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature scrapped the plan in favor of one that allows teams of teachers, not just individuals, to get bonuses.
In Minnesota, some experiments with new teacher pay systems got under way during the last decade at the initiative of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, whose leaders feared that their Democratic state legislators, on whom the union had long relied to obtain financing for teacher raises, were losing power to suburban Republicans.
“We realized we were going to have to embrace some things that would get money into teachers’ pockets in nontraditional ways,” said Louise Sundin, the federation’s president from 1984 until last year.
In 2004, the union worked with Mr. Pawlenty to bring a Milken Foundation initiative to three Minneapolis schools, including Seward Montessori, where Mr. Roper-Batker is one of about 50 teachers. He received a bonus of $2,131 after the first year, partly because he taught English in an intensive team effort that raised student scores. Student achievement has risen even more sharply at other schools participating in the program, officials said.
Mr. Roper-Batker said the bonus was welcome but not remotely as powerful a motivation as his own ambitions for his students. Several of his colleagues expressed similar views.
In 2005, Mr. Pawlenty modeled his own statewide teacher incentive plan, Q Comp, on the Minneapolis program. Of Minnesota’s 340 districts, about 40 have adopted Q Comp, and about 140 have submitted letters declaring their intent to join, he said. Allowing teachers to vote to participate is crucial, he said.
“This is a complex process of changing a culture, and it will fail if teachers don’t support it,” Mr. Pawlenty said.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company