November 15, 2011
Jeff Abbott, Ph.D.
Performance-based pay has been a hot topic among conversations regarding public education over the past several years. Performance-based pay, pay-for-performance, or merit pay, are all synonymous with pay programs “whereby teacher bonuses are tied to improvements in students’ performance” (Cissell, 2010, p. 119). Some programs even determine teacher pay, not just bonuses, based on student performance. Many states have already passed legislation which includes language for performance-based pay for teachers. This idea, however, is not new to education. When A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, many schools and districts experimented with flexible compensation plans in an effort to improve student achievement (Podgursky and Springer, 2007). The charge has been led by the Obama administration for the past three years, as evidenced by budget proposals. The Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), established by Congress in 2006 to implement performance-pay programs in high-need schools, was put into the 2009 stimulus package at $300 million. Subsequently it was put into the 2010 budget at $487 million and the 2011 budget at $950 million (Smarick, 2011). In President Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT) questionnaire, a comprehensive approach to improve teaching, 28% of the points were assigned based on whether or not an applicant established some commitment to a merit pay system (Smarick, 2011; Tienken, 2011; Woessmann, 2011). Sixteen states did make a commitment on their application.
Since a push for merit pay has been established, it makes sense to look at the different types of programs with which experiments have been performed. There are programs which are on an individual-level, school-level, and district-level. The Milken Family Foundation has established the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), Florida has its E-Comp, Texas joins with the Governor’s Education Excellence Awards, Denver with ProComp, Minnesota with Q-Comp, and the Houston Public Schools with a program based on achievement gain scores. Each of these is designed to encourage individual-level teacher bonuses. Dallas and South Carolina have established programs since the 1990’s, with New York City Schools joining in 2007, which commit to school-level bonuses (Podgursky and Springer, 2007; Smarick, 2011; Goodman and Turner, 2011; Goldhaber, DeArmond, Player, & Choi, 2008; Gratz, 2011; Jupp, 2005). With all of these experimental programs, none seem to have had much effect on raising student achievement on state standardized tests. Jupp (2005) argues the Denver ProComp plan, which was piloted from 1999-2003, had a positive impact. Jupp’s documentation may have been biased, however, since he was a member of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and the Teacher/Coordinator of the ProComp Project (stated in his credentials as the author). Most of these programs have been short-lived.
Examining the Denver ProComp program, specifically, gives some perspective on the individual-level merit pay programs. The Denver ProComp program has several key components which can determine teacher pay bonuses. These include satisfactory evaluations from the principal, additional training and education, student achievement gains, and the teacher must be in a high-poverty school or teach in a hard to staff subject (math or science) (Goldhaber et al, 2008). Gratz (2011) and Jupp (2005) tout the Denver ProComp scheme as having shown some success. Jupp goes even further by stating “For two years’ running more than half of the union members surveyed believe that some portion of their pay should be based on accurately measured student growth” (p.11). In his writing, Jupp also notes the fact that teachers could earn bonuses up to $1,500 when students showed growth. Many teachers who have taught for more than thirteen years prefer the ProComp program over the...