Friday, November 03, 2006

Merit Pay Chronicles: The Chicago Story

Merit pay for teachers is coming to the Windy City:
Chicago Public Schools will launch one of the nation's most ambitious merit pay systems with a $27.5 million federal grant that will allow the district to reward exemplary teachers and principals in hard-to-staff schools, officials announced Thursday.

It is the first time the Chicago district has experimented with the controversial concept of performance pay, and only one other Illinois district—East Aurora—has tried to link teacher pay to improving student test scores.

Chicago's grant from the U.S. Department of Education is the largest among school districts in the nation. The merit program will begin next school year.

It vaults Chicago into the center of a debate that's been brewing since the '90s about one of the most complicated and contentious ideas for school reform.

"This is monumental ... a historic day for Chicago schools," said schools chief Arne Duncan, who added that the groundbreaking proposal was crafted by a committee of award-winning teachers.

"We want to better retain and reward our best teachers. But this is not about competition. This is about building a team. There are no losers here. And we'll only go to schools that want this."

The program, funded for the first time this year, is part of President Bush's initiative to create a performance-based teacher and principal compensation system in high-need, high-poverty schools. Aside from the Chicago school system, 15 others are receiving grants this fall.

Performance pay has been a divisive issue between teachers unions and school administrators—and among teachers themselves. Unions have long argued that pay should be based on educational levels and seniority, while administrators counter that educators should be rewarded with extra pay for superior performance and working in challenging schools.

But as much as teachers welcome more pay, some question whether it's possible to develop a fair method for evaluating who best helps students learn.

The proposal is expected to be an issue in upcoming contract negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union, which has opposed pay increases linked to test scores or principal evaluations. The issue also represents a political dilemma for local union leaders, who face an election next year and don't want to alienate supporters or opponents of performance pay.

Chicago's proposal is distinctive in that the federal money would be spread around to everyone—from janitors to security guards—at the district's neediest neighborhood and charter schools. The largest annual bonuses, however, would go to teachers who showed outstanding leadership in improving their schools.

The extra money will start flowing to about 10 high-poverty schools in Chicago next year, for a total of 40 schools by 2010. District officials will select schools that have improved test scores over time, but also struggle with high teacher turnover.

During the announcement at Orr High School on the city's West Side, Mayor Richard Daley said he expects some resistance to the concept.

"If we don't think outside the box, we'll stay in the past," Daley said of the proposal. "The past doesn't reflect what we can do in the future."

Each school would receive an estimated $500,000 to $750,000 a year depending on the size of its staff, and individual teachers could see yearly bonuses of as much as $9,000 for superior work and student gains, Duncan said.

Jesch Reyes, a five-year teacher at Sumner Academy who helped design the program, said he believes the concept would be embraced at his North Lawndale elementary where 96 percent of students live in poverty and test scores have improved steadily in the last few years. He said the extra pay will not create morale problems, but rather reward teachers who work together on behalf of students.

"Teachers often ask themselves, 'Is it worth it?'" said Reyes, who teaches 7th and 8th graders. "That's why this is such an exciting opportunity. The idea is that we're all striving toward the same goals."

Terrell Halaska, an assistant secretary for the Department of Education, said Chicago received more money than any other district because its proposal was innovative, shaped by teachers and supported financially by business and charitable leaders.

"Nothing helps a child learn more than a great teacher in a classroom," Halaska said. "But typically the most-qualified teachers aren't teaching in the highest-need schools."

Denver Public Schools also won a five-year federal grant this week that will allow officials to expand the district's new merit pay program, which has been praised nationally by education reformers and union leaders alike.
Read page 2 right here.

The problem that we've always had with merit pay is how to fairly assess a given teacher's performance when so many factors affecting student performance are beyond the teacher's control.

For example: In California, a teacher cannot even require a student to drop-by after school for help, nor can parents be directed to attend a teacher-parent conference in order to discuss their child's academic needs. Students who have not passed their classes cannot even be required to repeat a grade; the parents have the absolute right to have their children socially promoted to the next-higher grade level.
See our latest EduPosts and this date's Extra Credit Reading.