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Testing the Murky Waters of Merit Pay, With Mixed Results

Last spring I took a position as English department chair at a New York City independent school, giving me a chance to work in the city after many years in suburban schools. The head of my new school told me that he and the board planned to launch a performance-based compensation system and asked me to help administer it. Like many teachers, I object to being paid based on student test scores, but after learning that wasn’t the plan at my new school, I found myself intrigued.

I admit it: I believe in merit pay, performance-based compensation, or whatever you want to call it. I’ve been in education too long not to be frustrated with the lock-step salary system: No matter how hard a teacher works, she’s paid the same as everyone else who started the same year she did and has the same number of postgraduate credits she does. While no one goes into teaching for the money, we’re also not volunteers. And why shouldn’t great teachers make more than mediocre ones?

So in I jumped, working with a formula that the department chairs, grade leaders, and heads of the secondary and primary schools had created. We made classroom observations and assessed each teacher’s collegiality, commitment, and participation in activities outside the classroom. Teachers were scored 1 to 4 in 20 different categories. The categories were weighted, producing final scores that fell into four ranges. Teachers who fell into three of the ranges would — when the plan went into full effect — receive bonuses.

Good thing it turned out to be a pilot program. We made some mistakes; we learned a lot; and we saw hope for the future.

What went wrong:

  • The logistics: The formula required two supervisors to be present for each class visit. Scheduling this was staggering.
  • The timetable: In an effort to come up with a score for each teacher by the time contracts for next year were distributed, the visits, post-visit conferences, and final scoring had to be completed by February. The rush was terrible, and both teachers and supervisors felt the process was over with the year just past the halfway mark.
  • The language: The mechanism used to assess the class visits and other categories scored the teachers 1 through 4, with 3 and 4 being “meets expectations” and “exceeds expectations.” When the scores were tallied and the coefficients applied, each teacher received a final score of 1 to 4. A quirk in the formula meant that some teachers who had received nothing lower than a 3 in any category received a 2 overall, which was described as not quite meeting expectations.
  • The chatter: I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised when the teachers shared their scores with each other. Despite the administration’s reassurance that everyone receiving a score of 2 to 4 was in the bonus range, conversation in the faculty lounge was angry and resentful.

What went well:

  • This first year was a pilot program, so we have a chance to fix our mistakes before money is at stake.
  • The goal was to reward teachers, rather than punish them.
  • The department chairs and other administrators have gone back to the drawing board to tweak — if not completely redesign — the formula and adjust the timetable.
  • The board decided to pay out performance-based compensation in the form of a bonus, rather than adjust the pay scale. This suggests a fluid system that will adjust to the talents, needs, and desires of the community — including the board — rather than the other way around.

What we’re working on:

  • The purpose and shape of the class visit: Is the goal of an observation to help a teacher improve or to assess a teacher’s practice at a single moment? At this international school the European faculty’s expectations for classroom observations are quite different from the American faculty’s. The Europeans are used to outside examiners doing a one-shot observation. The Americans expect more give and take, feedback in the form of suggestions for improvement, and second and third visits if necessary. As the single American department chair, I am in favor of unannounced observations. The European department chairs think teachers would mutiny if the observations were unannounced. We are still working on compromises.
  • What exemplary practice looks like: The formula we are developing does a pretty good of describing what it means to meet expectations. Do we have to paint a picture of what it looks like to exceed expectations? Or is that vision also partly the responsibility of the teacher?
  • Language: We need something other than 1-4 (Bluebirds, Canaries, Egrets, and Robins, perhaps?) for the final categories. I’m embarrassed at how much we underestimated the faculty’s sensitivity to the numbers and labels we used.

The successes give me hope that a fair, well-organized and compassionate performance-based compensation system is possible.

But if there is a teacher at my school in favor of performance-based compensation, he or she has yet to make that opinion public. And I think that’s a pity. It breaks my heart to listen to teachers who received final scores of 3s and 4s talk about how the system is terrible for morale. How can it be good for anyone’s morale to know you’re being paid the same as a person who received a 1? (For the record, there were very, very few 1s.)

This coming year the stakes will be higher because teachers will receive an end-of-year bonus based on their score. I hope we will iron out the kinks in the formula, that teachers will begin to notice that the system is encouraging rather than punitive, and that morale will improve as teachers feel rewarded for going above and beyond, or even just for being very good at their jobs.

What would it take to make a performance-based pay scheme work in the public schools? Tying bonuses or pay scales to test scores is the easy and cheap path, but I believe teachers will and should fight that plan with everything they’ve got. It takes hard work and experimentation, but at my school we’re on the verge of developing a system that takes into account a wide range of teaching skills and practices, not just outcomes. Having seen what it took to muddle through a pilot year in a small independent school makes me wonder if a large public system has the heart — or the resources — to develop a way to reward the good teachers, the ones who give and give and give, the ones who nurture their students, inspire their colleagues, and who would do it with or without merit pay.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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