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Raising teaching standards: NYC bonus pay plan gives hope for educators, schools in finding middle ground

Marc H. Morial | 8/6/2009, 7:54 a.m.

Raising teaching standards: NYC bonus pay plan gives hope for educators, schools in finding middle ground

As Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher writes, there are no two words together that “strike such fear and loathing in the heart” of teachers and their unions as “merit pay.”

But “no other concept” has enjoyed such support among those interested in bringing accountability to the nation’s public schools and at the same time improving student achievement, according to Fisher’s blog.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently orchestrated a coup in public education by getting the city’s teachers’ union to agree to voluntary pay incentives for educators in New York’s top 200 high-need schools to raise student achievement. The historic pact would provide $20 million in cash bonuses, funded through private donations in the first year, contingent on the progress their schools make on achievement tests.

“We’ve reached a breakthrough agreement establishing a new program that will reward excellent performance by individuals and by entire schools,” said Bloomberg. “We are rewarding our teachers who prove that they are the most successful in helping students make academic progress. This initiative will help us reward our great teachers and foster excellence in our public schools.”

During a leadership luncheon opening the National Urban League’s 2007 annual conference, the mayor touted the use of performance bonuses to encourage teachers to give their all in the classroom, especially in low-performing schools.

“We should be offering teachers and principals incentives not only to take the toughest assignments and to fill special needs, but also to get the best possible results from their students,” he said.

The collective bargaining agreement did not come without some compromise on Bloomberg’s behalf to get the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) to bite. It included a provision allowing teachers ages 55 and over to retire with full benefits after 25 years in the classroom, as well as a stipulation that performance bonuses be granted according to school-wide, as opposed to individual- or classroom-based, progress in student achievement to recognize the importance of collaboration in the educational process.

Under the plan, eligible schools are required to form committees consisting of at least two UFT members and two principal’s representatives to determine how the added money will be allocated to school employees.

The compromise “recognizes and builds upon the UFT’s core philosophy that students learn, achieve and benefit most when all educators in a school collaborate to provide the best possible education,” said union president Randi Weingarten at a recent City Hall press conference. “It properly refocuses the misguided debate over individual merit pay. Respecting and understanding the importance of teamwork and collaboration is precisely why the UFT enthusiastically supports this school-wide initiative and has consistently opposed the idea of individual merit pay for teachers — especially when based solely on student test scores.”

As a concept, merit pay and its various incarnations — performance incentives, bonuses, etc. — are not new, nor is the controversy surrounding them.

The term was born in 1710 in England, when teachers’ salaries were based on students’ test scores in reading, writing and arithmetic, according to Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles, authors of “Who’s Teaching Your Children: Why the Teacher Crisis Is Worse Than You Think and What Can Be Done About It.”

The final outcome of that salary structure? Not so great.

“Teachers and administrators became obsessed with financial rewards and punishments, and curriculums were narrowed to include only testable basics … Teaching became more mechanical as teachers found that drill and rote repetition produced the ‘best’ results. Both teachers and administrators were tempted to falsify results, and many did,” wrote Troen and Boles in a Boston Globe editorial published in late September.

In their book, the two women — who lecture at Brandeis University and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, respectively — review dozens of merit-pay plans, finding that “none of them, past [or] present, has ever had a successful track record. None has ever produced its intended results. Any gains have been minimal, short-lived and expensive to achieve.”

The New York City agreement may very well emerge as one of the success stories because it represents the first time that a school system and teacher’s union have managed to find a middle ground on performance incentives. Unlike previous efforts to use such bonuses to boost test scores, the plan also benefits from being part of an ambitious and comprehensive effort to improve the city’s schools.

Merit pay by itself is by no means the panacea for a failing educational system. But when incorporated with other initiatives, it has a greater chance of succeeding and helping get our nation’s schools back on the right track for a brighter future for generations to come.

Marc H. Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.