Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Merit Pay The Iowa Way

The state of Iowa instituted a merit pay system back in 2001. They've been less-than-happy with the results and are taking another shot at implementing a performance-based pay scheme for public school educators:
When students at Lawson Elementary School in Johnston met their goals in reading and math in 2001-02, second-grade teacher Melissa Keeney was among those who took home an extra $700.

But the bonus had such little impact, Keeney says, she has trouble remembering the amount.

"I don't think it made or broke anyone for that year," she said. "We're always trying to do something else to help our students. Whether you're getting a little extra money for that or not isn't the question."

Five years after Iowa attempted to be the first state to base teacher salaries on performance rather than seniority, the state is once again trying to make the concept work with new studies and new pilot projects.

Iowa's latest plan is under construction. It will cost nearly $1 million and ultimately result in 10 pilot projects, which will cost $2.5 million in 2007-08. The numbers are expected to grow to 20 projects and $5 million the following year.

The latest pay-for-performance effort is hardly out of the starting gate and stakeholders have already questioned the concept.

"There's a belief by some that if we pay teachers more, that they'll do a better job. I think that's faulty thinking," said Jim Casey, associate superintendent of the Johnston school district, which handed out bonuses under the 2001 plan.

The last time Iowa ventured into the controversial issue, it looked to the Cincinnati school district as an example. But Cincinnati has since abandoned its system amid complaints from teachers that it increased their paperwork and made them feel threatened and stressed about their careers.

The issue is hot nationwide. The 46,000-student Douglas County, Colo., school district was one of the first in the nation to offer performance pay in 1994. Denver voters last year approved $25 million in taxes to finance its system. Minnesota last year enacted sweeping teacher-pay reform. And a program by the Milken Family Foundation to reward teachers for their expertise and gains in student test scores has expanded to 10 states and the District of Columbia.

James Guthrie, a Vanderbilt University professor who is helping Iowa to craft its latest plan, said the resurgence comes after a national "merit-pay fad" 20 years ago that "left almost no residue other than dissatisfaction." The latest plans stem from attempts to link teacher compensation to student achievement, provide incentives for professional development, and attract and retain teachers.

"There's a lot of experimentation going on but there's not a lot of data or knowledge that's been accumulated," said Jan Reinicke, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association, the union that represents about 32,000 teachers, and a member of the institute and commission studying the issue.

Iowa officials still have a long road before they know how the new pay plan will look. A pilot project is expected to be implemented by next fall.

State Sen. Paul McKinley, a Chariton Republican who was a key backer of the performance pay study, was soured by Gov. Tom Vilsack's veto of the original plan and criticized the bureaucratic structure of the study. "I'm not even sure where we're headed with this," he said. "There's so many committees and there's questions of who's doing what."

One of the more controversial aspects of Iowa's plan is a legislative mandate to spend half the money on incentives to individual teachers. Educators say the concept is divisive.

"It essentially pits one staff member against another," Keeney said. "Specific kinds of teachers, like fine arts or special education teachers, may not qualify to get any kind of bonus. You could have a fabulous special education teacher who works extremely hard and the students still might not score at the proficiency level."

Lawson Elementary's principal, Cheryl Henkenius, said incentives should be awarded to groups of educators, rather than individuals, so that they work together for a common purpose.

"I worry and get concerned about teachers being isolated," Henkenius said. "When they go into their classroom and shut their door, they're the only person there. With a group incentive, there's more collaboration, more sharing, more ideas."

The issue has become muddled with politics and legal action. Six media organizations last week sued the Institute for Tomorrow's Workforce, a legislatively created group receiving nearly $1 million to study the issue, for going behind closed doors at a July meeting to discuss which of eight consultants it should hire.

McKinley last week called for a freeze on all state money until the situation is resolved.

But Michael Tramontina, director of the Iowa Department of Management, said two payments totaling $395,000 have already been made and another $395,000 must be paid by Dec. 15, according to a signed agreement.

Educators say lessons can be learned from the 2001 teacher pay plan, which received national attention. The plan was to link pay increases with an evaluation system and a four-step career ladder, increase teacher mentoring, and award bonuses to schools that met student achievement goals.

The effort was intended to better recruit and retain teachers. It started with $40 million and was supposed to increase to $300 million, but was never fully financed. Meanwhile, Iowa dropped from 36th to 41st in the nation for average teacher pay, although state officials say the drop would have been more significant without the program.

"It's sort of interesting that people who study these look at Iowa as a state that has implemented a pay-for-performance program but it never, ever got implemented totally," said Judy Jeffrey, director of the Iowa Department of Education. "It would have been great to implement the system as it was envisioned."

The 2001 plan increased teacher mentoring around the state and improved retention among new teachers. Eighty-seven percent of first-year teachers returned in 2001-02, while 92 percent of first-year teachers returned in 2005-06.

The system also beefed up teacher evaluations. Each teacher must now meet eight standards and 42 criteria. Iowa is believed to be the only state in the nation where beginning teachers who don't meet the standards are not given a license.

But Jeffrey said the three-year pilot project that gave bonuses to schools showed no conclusive results. Nine of the 18 schools met their goals and received financial incentives the first year, seven of 10 received bonuses the second year, and only two of nine schools got money the third year.

State officials could not discern whether schools made gains because of the pilot project, or because of goals set under the federal education accountability law called No Child Left Behind.

"About 50 percent of the teams made the gains that they had projected and 50 percent didn't," Jeffrey said. "You just couldn't separate out that this is what caused the improvement in student achievement." McKinley, the state senator, criticized the last pilot project as "completely inadequate." He said the team-based variable pay was unscientific.

Lawson Elementary participated in 2001-02 and 2003-04. The first year, the school met its goals and chose to divide bonuses among staff members. Each administrator, teacher, associate, counselor and secretary received about $700. But the second year, the school fell short of its goal and got no extra money. The school would have had to make even more improvement than the year before, and officials said that was tough because scores were already high.

Henkenius said the school liked the honor and recognition the first time around. But Casey, the associate superintendent, said teachers work hard regardless of whether extra pay is at stake.

Guthrie, whose university is home to the new National Center on Performance Incentives, said if the state plans to reward teachers with bonuses of $500 to $1,000, "you might just not try it." He said it takes bonuses of $5,000 to $15,000 to make a difference.

Henkenius, the principal, agrees. "If it's something over $1,000, it would be a little easier to remember and would make more of a significant difference," she said.

Key to the success of any performance pay system will be buy-in from the teachers. In 2001, national experts warned that Iowa's plan was soured by a lack of teacher support.

Educators warn that could happen again, especially if bonuses are tied to a single test score.

"We were willing to look at alternative forms of compensation, but tying an individual teacher's salary to student achievement data is not something that we have embraced," Reinicke said. "We've never seen a successful system do that."
One of the concerns that I have as a classroom teacher is that I have yet to see a merit pay system that addresses the very real issue of student apathy (of some) regarding standardized tests.

Another concern that I have involves the assignment of students. What safeguards would there be to prevent principals from assigning the more motivated students to their [staff] favorites and those students with discipline problems to teachers who they don't favor?
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