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Second look at merit pay for teachers

President Obama, Phila. schools chief on board.

President Obama is on board. So is Philadelphia schools chief Arlene Ackerman:

Changing the way teachers are paid is an idea whose time has come, one key to fixing a broken education system, both have declared publicly.

Though the subject is historically thorny - teachers unions staunchly oppose most merit-pay plans - advocates say that because teacher quality is crucial to student learning, it's time to take another stab.

"It's a new day, and it's time for us to look at performance. Adults have to be accountable for results," Ackerman said in a recent interview, echoing a theme that has become familiar in her nine-month superintendency.

In "Imagine 2014," her newly released strategic plan, Ackerman calls for financial and nonfinancial incentives for teachers and for a system that gives bigger paychecks to specialists in hard-to-staff subjects and schools.

And in his first education-policy speech, Obama earlier this month said: "Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom." Money will be available for incentive programs, the president said.

In Philadelphia, the new money could come in handy to close a deal at the bargaining table. Negotiations are under way for a new teachers' contract to replace the pact that expires Aug. 31.

So far, union reaction is tepid. Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said he would be willing to examine extra pay for specialists and incentives in some form, "but I don't want to give the idea that I'm throwing seniority out the window."

Merit-pay systems are tough to design in a fair, clear way, Jordan said, adding that he worries they encourage unhealthy competition and discourage teacher collaboration. Rather than individual rewards, incentives should be given to a whole school for improvement, he said.

Jordan also rejected the suggestion that "teachers aren't working hard enough. It's a fallacy that if we put this money out there, they're going to work harder."

Ackerman said she would be willing to start with whole-school incentives and would also include teacher training.

"If I had my way, I would love to see us raise the base pay for all teachers and begin to pay teachers based on not only their certification, but the use of that in high-need areas," Ackerman said. For instance, if a teacher were bilingual, taught science, and worked in a hard-to-staff school, they would get three steps of extra pay.

Merit pay is not new in Philadelphia. The 2000 teachers' contract awarded some bonuses for teachers who worked in hard-to-staff schools. And in 2006, the district received a $20.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop and implement a teacher-incentive program.

At the time, the federal grant was announced with much fanfare - the union would be the district's partner, officials said, ensuring the plan would succeed where others failed.

But the deal fell apart.

"We worked with the union on the proposal, but the PFT ultimately decided not to support the program," said Tim Field, a Philadelphia School District administrator.

Jordan says that the district's surprise $180 million budget deficit that year caused classroom conditions to deteriorate and that the district did not make good on promises to include union suggestions in a merit-pay scheme.

"The conditions were just not conducive for asking teachers to become involved in a program like this," Jordan said.

The district kept the money, and today, 11 charter schools have tapped into the fund, awarding their teachers incentives for student growth and "effective practices."

Though incentives for teachers have been around for decades, there's a lack of solid research around whether merit pay boosts student performance, said Matthew Springer, director of the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University, which has federal funding to study whether incentives work.

"It's a movement that's gaining traction," said Springer, "but we really don't know if it's an effective reform or not."

Merit pay has been tried with varying degrees of success around the country. Locally, the Colonial School District adopted incentives in 1999, but found that its initial formula was flawed and unfair. The union even struck, in large part because of merit pay, in 2001.

Now, the Montgomery County district pays "master teachers" extra and gives incentives to schools that raise student achievement.

Some states, including Texas and Florida, have adopted incentive programs, and New York City is piloting a pay-for-performance program. In Washington, maverick superintendent Michelle Rhee has floated a proposal for teachers to give up tenure entirely for performance-based pay.

Denver's merit-pay system has been around since 1999 and has shown student gains in an internal evaluation.

It is called ProComp, and under the plan - mandatory for new teachers and optional for veterans - teachers start at higher salaries and can move up the pay scale quicker than they could under the traditional system, said Phil Gonring, an official with Denver's Rose Community Foundation, a nonprofit group that helped design the system.

Applications, both for the district and its hard-to-staff schools, are up, Gonring said, and a number of surrounding districts are also considering adopting similar pay structures. He said he expected the movement to grow nationally.

"Eventually, we're going to get to a point - maybe under the Obama administration - where enough districts adopt performance-pay plans that we'll get to a tipping point," Gonring said.

Traditionally, high-poverty schools across the country have had a disproportionate share of inexperienced teachers, but merit pay would make it more attractive for veterans to pick those schools, Gonring said.

And because a teacher can rapidly jump from making $35,000 to $60,000, sharp young people who might otherwise shy away from classroom jobs are thinking twice about teaching, he said.

"You can suddenly compete with the other professions with which you're not currently competing," Gonring said.

Theodore Hershberg, a University of Pennsylvania professor and executive director of Operation Public Education there, said he believed that merit pay was a start, but that systemic change was necessary. His group has designed new ways to follow student learning over time. Teachers' pay would be based in part on that growth.

Hershberg says it is time to change the old model that paid teachers on experience as a way to avoid race and sex bias.

Peer review, a career ladder teachers can move up quickly, and strong teacher training are all part of his model, which Hershberg said he hoped Philadelphia would consider.

"The whole society is based on merit," Hershberg said. "Why is public education the only place where we don't give a damn if you're any good?"