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Gloria Bonilla Santiago Headshot

Pay by Performance Shows Merit

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You have heard the old saying about how hard it is to teach an old dog new tricks. Well, you can imagine then how much harder it is to sell a bunch of educators on a new idea -- in this case, the notion that a teacher should be rewarded for their performance, not solely on their seniority.

It is no surprise that some educators consider "merit pay" the two dirtiest words in the education dictionary. Indeed, calls for merit pay for teachers have been met with immediate and strong resistance from many in the education community, including teachers' unions and education pundits across the country.

The concept of merit pay has been publicly flogged for having no record of success as a school improvement strategy. But a merit pay system can and does work -- and LEAP Academy Charter School in Camden, NJ, is living proof.

When we founded LEAP in 1997, we made it a priority to hire the best and brightest teachers to work at New Jersey's first charter school located in the heart of this poor and decaying city. Needless to say, our sell was a tough one.

To paraphrase the old U.S. Army recruitment ad, landing a position at LEAP meant immersing oneself in an adventure that required a deeper commitment than the average teaching job.

Consider that a teaching position at LEAP required an extended school day and a longer school year. This was in itself a departure from what teachers were accustomed to in traditional public schools, but a necessary one if we were to change the dynamic and elicit the potential in these mostly poor children.

Two years later we launched a merit pay program for our teachers as a strategy to recognize and promote quality teaching and reward teachers based on the academic outcomes of the students they teach. When our teachers voted to unionize, it took us three years to negotiate a merit pay-based contract. LEAP Academy became the first, and remains the only unionized school in New Jersey to give salary increases to teachers based on performance.

Our merit pay program quickly became the carrot we needed to attract talented teachers and retain those who demonstrate the ability and desire to thrive in a setting that expects rigor, innovation and genuine commitment to student growth and achievement.

But, it hasn't been easy, and we've learned some difficult yet important lessons that, when combined with years of positive outcomes, can serve as an example of the success that can occur in public schools and charter schools across the country.

Here are some of the lessons we learned -- allegories that can help other schools and districts that are considering implementing a pay for performance model:

  • Reforms cannot be designed as punitive management tools, nor can they be sorting process. Reforms must be inclusive and part of a systemic effort to build the capacity of the district or school to help teachers help students. Whether it is to improve student achievement, improve recruitment and/or retention, attract teachers to shortage teaching fields, attract teachers to hard-to-staff schools, the purpose of the alternative system must be clear.
  • Flexibility is a key. Redesigning the teacher compensation system is not an event. It is a work in progress that must be adjusted and refined as the system grows and the needs change. We learned that it takes time to do this right.
  • Teacher buy-in on the overall restructuring of the compensation system is essential if they are to feel valued and respected by the school community. Taking the time to develop trust between teachers and management is necessary to create a new system, build in program evaluation components, communicate the program to get broad teacher and community support and build the missing pieces for the system including assessment tools, professional development for administrators, updated computer systems to better link student and teacher data.
  • Finally, new systems cannot be created by slicing and dicing existing dollars, nor can they be done on the cheap. Budgeting plays a key role in making a merit pay system work well. At LEAP we budget for the maximum incremental increase allowable and make sure we have appropriate and well-trained staff in place to design, implement and sustain the program over time. District or school leadership will have to stomach the budget process in order to gain the necessary additional resources to develop a professional compensation system designed to improve instructional practice and increase student achievement.

So, how are we doing?

As we see at LEAP each year, the results of the merit pay system are powerful. Consider that 100 percent of LEAP students graduate from high school and go on to college. By comparison, less than 40 percent of Camden's public school students even finish high school.

The merit pay model in use at LEAP demonstrates that a good performance-based compensation plan that addresses teaching quality, student achievement and leadership contributions motivates teachers to work harder and to have a clear focus on the students they teach.

To be fair, we work hard to provide teachers with sufficient resources, quality training, access to data and the necessary time to learn from each other. And to be realistic, we also take into account that teachers bring different levels of skills, knowledge and ability to their work and that individual student learning is significantly influenced by more than just individual teachers.

Contrary to what the detractors say about the value of merit pay for teachers, it's really a very simple concept that is applied in the private sector as a matter of course: teachers receive salary increases and bonuses based on their effectiveness in the classroom, leadership contributions, and student achievement rates, in other words -- results.

And those are rewards that everyone -- old dogs and change resistant educators -- can feel good about.