First Person

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.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.