insights (2006-10)

Jury’s Out on Teacher Performance Pay

It all started with County Mayor Mike Ragsdale’s resolve to make performance pay for teachers a cornerstone of his “Every school a great school” mantra.

To carry through on it, the county-funded foundation that Ragsdale got formed (after much travail) to provide the money has embraced a model called the Teacher Advancement Program developed by the Milken Family Foundation. And last week the Knox County school board approved a TAP pilot program in four of the county’s 76 public schools.

The multi-faceted TAP program involves a lot more than just paying teachers bonuses based on student test score gains. Its teacher mentoring component appeals to the Knox County Education Association which, like most teachers unions, has long opposed performance pay. And KCEA has even gone along with the teacher pay component, but with a lot of strings attached.

These strings include a proviso that introduction of TAP at any school must be approved by 75 percent of its teachers on a secret ballot. No date has been set for this vote at the four pilot schools involved: Inskip Elementary, Pond Gap Elementary, Holston Middle and Northwest Middle. But even though they were picked because their principals are TAP supporters, the outcome of those votes promises to be problematic, with KCEA taking a neutral stance.

Beyond that, KCEA managed to get its contract with the school system amended to provide that everyone employed at a TAP school would be entitled to a bonus. Under state law, any change in the way teachers are compensated is subject to a collective bargaining agreement. But it seems a stretch for the amended contract to stipulate that janitors, secretaries and cafeteria workers at TAP schools would each be entitled to a $400 bonus in the name of schoolwide harmony.

How much extra pay teachers get would depend upon a complex formulation devised by TAP to determine their entitlements. A bonus pool of $2,500 per teacher would be allocated to each TAP school. Half of the payout from this pool would be based on teacher evaluations by their principals and specially trained master and mentor teachers who’d be placed at each TAP school with salary supplements of their own. The other half of the payout would be based on student achievement gains, as measured by the state’s value added system for assessing how much improvement in TCAP test scores should be expected from each student in any given year. Part of this payout would be made on a schoolwide basis for meeting or exceeding these expectations. The other part would go to individual teachers based on value added gains in their classrooms.

The rub with all of this is that students don’t take TCAPs until third grade, and it takes another two years before value added expectations can be calculated. So the quantitative component of performance pay entitlements in elementary schools would seem to rest entirely on fifth grade test scores, yet all teachers in a school would be equally entitled.

The case for this equality starts with the premise that all teachers in a school from kindergarten on up have contributed to student preparedness. Moreover, it’s asserted that performance pay should foster a spirit of collegiality among teachers at a school rather than pit them against each other competitively.

In fact, performance payout varied widely from teacher to teacher at the 45 schools scattered around the country at which TAP was in place this past school year. The only person in the world who’s held out as fully understanding how they were arrived at is a TAP administrator in Greenville, S.C., who does all the calculations. Unfortunately, she’s not very good at explaining them to a layperson—at least not to this columnist. Yet clarity is a prerequisite to gaining teacher acceptance of the equitability of their bonuses—unless one takes the cynical view that they will welcome any extra pay they can get without regard to how it’s determined.

TAP’s performance pay construct may be better suited to middle schools where TCAP and resultant value added scores are available at every grade level. But there are no such metrics in place for high schools where performance pay may be most needed, especially in the sciences and math, to help overcome much-publicized lags in U.S. student performance.

Another part of the case for selective teacher pay supplements is to attract and keep top teachers in so-called hard to staff schools with large enrollments of disadvantaged students. The four schools selected for the TAP pilot fit this profile, but it doesn’t include any of the 12 inner city Project Grad schools where the challenge is the greatest. TAP’s framework doesn’t readily lend itself to being overlaid on the specialized pedagogy of the Project Grad schools explains Cheryl Kershaw, executive director of the Great Schools Partnership, which is the name that’s been given to the Ragsdale backed foundation that’s being funded separately from the regular school budget.

All that said, Kershaw and the school officials with whom she’s been collaborating deserve commendations for trying to bring transformative innovation to Knox County schools. Her diligence in assessing TAP has included leading site visits to TAP schools in South Carolina and Louisiana, and gaining the acceptance of KCEA even for a pilot was a feat unto itself.

It would be a shame if all these efforts went for naught. So while the jury’s out on how well TAP will work, it at least deserves a trial.