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Can D.C. Merit Pay Plan for Teachers Deliver?

Written by Walt Gardner on 12 April 2010.

Can D.C. Merit Pay Plan for Teachers Deliver?The big news out of Washington D.C. last week was the tentative deal reached between unionized teachers and reform advocates that avoided a high-noon showdown. By consenting to tie compensation largely - although not completely - to improved standardized test scores, the local union retreated from its longstanding opposition on the issue.

There were other important concessions made by the Washington Teachers' Union, but they took a back seat to pay-for-performance.So let's take a closer look at the details of this specific section. First, the pay-for-performance plan is voluntary. At present, teachers can earn a maximum of $87,000. Those who choose to participate can see their income go up to $147,000. Second, progress, rather than proficiency, on standardized test scores largely determines which teachers are awarded the raises. This is a crucial distinction. Third, private foundation money pays for the plan, an important ingredient when government funding today is so precarious.

These details, however, are not as promising as they seem. First, it's unclear how many teachers will be willing to give up their tenure for one year as a condition for qualifying for the higher salaries. That was the original demand made by Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Second, progress, or the lack of it, made by students is often contaminated by factors beyond the control of teachers. When families go on welfare, for example, their children are affected negatively. Conversely, when families move to better neighborhoods, the new environment can have a positive effect on learning. Third, the foundation funds for the raises are expected to be gone after three years, according to a spokesperson for the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which is contributing $10 million. Where will the funding come from if the economy has not yet sufficiently picked up by the end of that period?

But what creates the greatest reservation about the D.C. pact is the recent attempt at merit pay that failed in Texas. In 2006, the Texas Educator Excellence Grant was established with the hope that it would produce academic improvement. However, by Nov. 2009, the $300 million spent on merit pay for teachers in 1,000 schools serving low-income students had not achieved its goal, and was quietly retired. Supporters of TEEG maintained that bonuses were too small and were awarded to groups of teachers at a particular school, rather than to individual teachers. This strategy vitiated competition between teachers that was deemed by supporters to be indispensable to improved performance.

Perhaps D.C. will have better results than Texas because the details are not the same. But the entire history of merit pay in this country has not been encouraging for a reason that outsiders find impossible to understand. It's not that teachers don't want more money. Instead, it's that money doesn't play the same role in shaping their behavior as it does in business. Surveys of teachers who quit the profession, for example, consistently have found that salary is not the No. 1 factor. Moreover, efforts to attract new or veteran teachers to schools populated by hard-to-teach students in the form of combat pay have not been successful either.

Let's hope that D.C. will be different. So much is on the line for the nation. But a healthy dose of skepticism is in order.